Commenting on the results of Election Day 2006, Republican Party pollster Bill McInturff told the Wall Street Journal that Republicans faced “the most difficult environment since Watergate,” referring to the scandal that forced then-President Richard Nixon to resign from office in 1974.
This is encouraging news for everyone who has spent the last week celebrating the Republican Party’s “thumping'” by the angry electorate-to quote the visibly disoriented president, fumbling for words, in a White House press conference the day after.
Within 24 hours after the polls closed, we were treated to the sight of Donald Rumsfeld-no longer sneering, but instead choking back tears-during his brief Oval Office “resignation” ceremony, before Bush’s handlers permanently shuffled him out of sight.
The seemingly unstoppable Bush regime unraveled with stunning rapidity when faced with a massive voter rebellion last Tuesday. The widely accepted notion of the apathetic (and, presumably, politically contented) American majority also took a thumping last Tuesday.
The angry electorate
According to the New York Times’ exit polls, six in ten voters said their vote was based on national, not local, issues. The same percentage disapproved of the war in Iraq and said the war had not increased the security of the United States. Six in ten voters also disapproved of the way Congress was handling its job. Six in ten voters who described themselves as “independents” voted Democrat, while two-thirds said they were dissatisfied or angry with Republican leaders.
There was also a class component to the Democrats’ victories. About half of all voters said they had just enough money to continue at their present standard of living (otherwise known as living a paycheck or two away from poverty), while one-fifth said they were falling behind financially.
The Wall Street Journal reported that exit polls showed that of the 31 percent of voters who said they are “getting ahead financially,” 63 percent voted Republican; among the 51 percent who reported they are “maintaining their living standard,” 39 percent voted Republican; and among the 17 percent who said they are “falling behind financially,” only 21 percent voted Republican.
Indeed, 66 percent of those who hadn’t completed high school voted Democrat.
Race also played a key role in voting patterns, although a higher percentage of whites also voted Democrat. The percentage of white voters going for Democrats was 48 percent in 2006, compared with 41 percent in 2004. African-Americans continued their long-standing loyalty to the Democrats, by an 88 percent margin (identical to 2004). Asian voters voted by a margin of 67 percent for Democrats in 2006, compared to 56 percent in 2004.
But Latino voters showed the greatest increase in Democratic voting: 73 percent in 2006, compared with 53 percent in 2004. Only 27 percent of Latinos supported Republicans, in contrast to the more than 40 percent of Latinos who voted for Bush in 2004.
The 2006 election also drew the highest percentage of young voters (under age 30) in a mid-term election in 20 years-up by more than 4 percent since 2002. According to exit polls, 61 percent voted Democratic in House elections, playing a key role in close races that pushed Democrats over the top.
Enter stage left: the other corporate party
The Democrats must also appreciate that their victories in the November 7 elections were due in large part to a shift in corporate loyalties. The Republican Party has traditionally been the preferred party of America’s corporate class, openly parading the virtues of laissez faire capitalism. But the Democratic Party remains the corporate party-in-waiting, ready to cloak the same class loyalties with compromises aimed at curbing mass discontent when it threatens the class status quo.
The Bush administration served the corporate class well, providing tax cuts for the wealthiest percentile in the midst of a major war. But the electorate apparently caught on to this increasingly transparent hoax.
Corporate dollars began a significant shift to the Democratic side in the weeks before the 2006 election, signaling a ruling-class consensus on the need to shift from “Plan A” to “Plan B”. It cannot be a coincidence that Rep. Mark Foley’s sexual indiscretions became media fodder just six weeks before the election-since they were well known, apparently, years ago. While it is a pleasure to watch the mainstream media attacking Bush ruthlessly now, their corporate sponsors have approved and encouraged the media’s about-face.
Given the limits of the two-party system, the Republicans’ loss was the Democrats’ gain. But the message was unmistakable. As the Chicago Tribune noted on November 8,
“Americans finally got to vote on the war. They want change. They got to vote on one-party rule. They rejected it. They got a chance to vote local. They voted national. Indeed, the Democrats essentially beat something with nothing. They offered no clear agenda, no Contract with America, not even a memorable bumper sticker. This was an election driven by feelings of rejection far more than embrace.”
The Democrats are rejoicing in their successful “centrist” strategy in this election-deliberately running Democratic social conservatives opposed to abortion and gay marriage against Republican social conservatives also opposed to abortion and gay marriage in several key races. These included abortion opponent Bob Casey Jr., who beat Republican abortion opponent Rick Santorum for his Pennsylvania Senate seat; the also victorious Indiana sheriff Brad Ellsworth, who won a House seat while opposing abortion rights and same-sex marriage; and Christian Heath Shuler, an evangelical who won a House seat in North Carolina last Tuesday. And they will seek to continue this “centrist” strategy into the 2008 presidential election.
But the election results were definitive on only one issue: discontent with the Republican Party. The red-state vs. blue state formula adopted after Kerry’s defeat in 2004 was extinguished by voting results, in which Republicans who just months ago were on top in opinion polls were voted out in many “red states.”
Rising expectations: the Democrats’ dilemma
But the Democratic victories have led to a rise in mass expectations for an end to the Iraq war, a raise in the minimum wage, and an end to political corruption.
The Democrats, of course, have no plans to shake things up. This election was widely touted as a referendum on the war. But so far, Democrats have provided only a vaguely worded “phased withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Iraq at an unspecified future date.
In a post-election interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer, likely 2008 presidential contender Barack Obama backpedaled on his earlier pledge to begin withdrawing troops by the end of this year:
“I think now it’s too late to try to start something before the end of the year. What I would do is sit down with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military that’s actually on the ground and figure out, how do we fit together a military strategy that can start that phased redeployment, but ensure not total collapse in Iraq, and also make sure that we engage the Iraqi government [We need] to make sure that they [the Iraqis] know we’re serious about not being there permanently.”
Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, in line to become chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was more explicit. “We have to tell the Iraqis that the open-ended commitment is over and that we’re going to begin to have a phased withdrawal in four to six months,” he threatened-as if Iraqis invited the U.S. to invade and occupy their country in 2003 and are now taking advantage of Americans’ waning goodwill.
So far, Democrats have gone no further than deferring to the recommendations of the (Republican) James Baker-led Iraq Study Group-which is rumored to embrace a strategy for significantly lowering down U.S. troops at an unspecified date.
Overall, the watchword of the victorious Democrats remains “bipartisanship.” Despite the venom of their own campaign ads, they seek compromise with the Republican Party.
This is not surprising, since a U.S. defeat in Iraq would be on par with the humiliation U.S. imperialism suffered after its defeat in Vietnam. And both Democrats and Republicans are, after all, pro-war, imperialist parties.
The electorate has spoken. But it is worth noting that the Watergate scandal, while ending Nixon’s presidency, did not lead to a seismic shift leftward in the political climate. On the contrary, U.S. politics moved decisively rightward in the following years, as the mass social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s pinned their hopes on the Democratic Party to spearhead social change. As it turned out, the Democrats responded to corporate pressures to tack rightward, leading eventually to our present predicament.
We should not repeat the mistakes of that past generation of leftists. The Democrats, like the Republicans, must respond to mass voter discontent. But their shared goal is a return to politics-as-usual.
The Democrats will not deliver an end to the Iraq war without substantial pressure from below. And that requires large-scale, grass-roots struggle. This should be a wakeup call to everyone who wants an end to the Iraq war, a raise in the minimum wage, a step forward for immigrants’ rights-and an end to politics-as-usual in Washington. The door for social change is opening, but we must take action to achieve it.