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The Death of Triangulation Politics?

A few months ago, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would have seemed the least likely Democratic presidential candidate to lead the charge to repeal the authority Congress bestowed upon George W. Bush to wage war on Iraq in 2002.

Indeed, ever since Clinton laid down residential roots in Westchester County, New York in 2000 (the first step in a calculated plan for a 2008 presidential run), she staked her reputation as a founding member of the “National Security Democrats”–a Congressional caucus including presidential rivals Joe Biden and John Edwards–that embraced the Bush Doctrine’s strategy of pre-emptive warfare and the conservative legacy of Republican Ronald Reagan.

As recently as March, Clinton stubbornly refused to apologize for voting to authorize the war in 2002, in stark contrast to the now-former Senator Edwards (who apologized) and the since-elected Senator Barack Obama (who at the time was still protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a member of Illinois’ state legislature).

Clinton’s handlers appear to have finally recognized that the angry electorate that swept the Democrats into a Congressional majority last November is demanding opposition to the war as a litmus test for supporting 2008 candidates. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal opinion poll released on April 25 showed both Obama and Edwards closing in on Clinton’s lead. While she remained 12 points ahead of Obama in March, her lead shrank to just 5 points in April, with only a 36-31 percent margin. Support for Edwards, just 15 percent in March, rose to 20 percent in April.

“Triangulation”–a strategy perfected by President Bill Clinton as he stole the Republican Party’s conservative platform in the 1990s–is quickly receding into an historical anomaly for the Democratic Party. This strategy failed miserably for John Kerry in 2004, in a ridiculous attempt to straddle the pro- and anti-war camps, famously declaring, “I did vote for [the war] before I voted against it.” If anything, it is astonishing that the Democratic Party establishment has taken so long to realize that pandering to conservative “swing” voters–and its open contempt toward its enormous liberal voting base–only strengthened the ideological hold of the Republican Party, itself held captive to the Christian Right on Election Day.

* * *

By the first 2008 Democratic debate on April 26, Hillary Clinton was riding a decidedly antiwar horse. “The Congress has voted, as of today, to end this war,” she declared. “And now we can only hope that the president will listen.” On May 3, Clinton joined West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd to sponsor legislation repealing the October 11, 2002 Senate authorization for the Iraq war, effective October 11, 2007.

“We’ve definitely all noticed a shift to the left–and not just the left, the complete far left,” observed Republican National Committee spokesman Chris Taylor. “You have somebody like Dennis Kucinich, who, three years ago, seemed off his rocker, and [at the April 26 debate], all the candidates were trying to get left of him.”

This shift, however, is not limited to opportunist Democrats holding their fingers to the wind. Bush supporters are also jumping off his sinking ship. The Center for Responsive Politics in Washington recently reported that Obama and Clinton have taken in more than $750,000 in individual contributions from defecting Bush donors.

The defectors include Tom Bernstein, a Yale University alumni and co-owner with Bush of the Texas Rangers baseball team-contributing $50,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2004-who now supports Obama. Another is Matthew Dowd, Bush’s chief campaign strategist in 2004. According to the Sunday Times (U.K.) Dowd is “disillusioned with the war in Iraq and the president’s ‘my way or the highway’ style of leadership.” Even neocon Robert Kagan, co-founder of the Project for the New American Century, recently commented in the Washington Post that Obama is “pure John Kennedy.”

Most presidential candidates may not yet recognize the emerging-and seismic-shift in U.S. mainstream politics, precipitated from below. But opinion polls clearly show that mass consciousness is far left of center, as economist Paul Krugman noted on March 26 in the New York Times:

According to the American National Election Studies, in 1994, the year the Republicans began their 12-year control of Congress, those who favored smaller government had the edge, by 36 to 27. By 2004, however, those in favor of bigger government had a 43-to-20 lead. And public opinion seems to have taken a particularly strong turn in favor of universal health care. Gallup reports that 69 percent of the public believes that “it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage,” up from 59 percent in 2000

The main force driving this shift to the left is probably rising income inequality. According to Pew, there has recently been a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who agree with the statement that “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.”

In a CBS News Poll conducted on April 9-12, fully 66 percent of respondents said they “disapprove” of the way Bush is handling the situation with Iraq.

Even on immigration, the Republicans’ current wedge issue, popular opinion is far to the left of Beltway politics. For example, USA Today reported on April 18, “A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken last weekend found that 78% of respondents feel people now in the country illegally should be given a chance at citizenship.”

* * *

The current “race to the left” among both Democrats and Republicans can only be understood in its historic significance. The political pendulum is swinging left at a rate not seen since the late 1960s, when Sen. Robert Kennedy, who built his political career as a rabid anti-communist during the 1950s McCarthy era, resurfaced as an antiwar presidential candidate in 1968.

The Republicans and Democrats have historically coexisted as the twin parties of capital. Big business, of course, prefers the Republicans’ “Plan A” to aggressively assert its interests. But it can always rely on the Democrats’ “Plan B” to salvage its interests when popular dissent threatens to revolt. The Democrats’ historic mission is to absorb social anger into its electoral folds. Today, the Democratic Party is fulfilling this mission–but this also opens up the possibility for further reform. Yesterday’s “do-nothing” Democrats have evolved into a team of reformers, dragged kicking and screaming by an angry electorate, but responsive to further pressure from below.

At the moment, there is a discernable difference between “Plan A” and “Plan B,” which merits acknowledgement. For example, Republican presidential candidates uniformly applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s April 18 ruling upholding the so-called “partial birth” abortion ban, while Democrats lined up to defend women’s right to abortion. Clinton, who in January 2005 called abortion a “sad, even tragic choice” in an overture to the religious right stridently responded by repeating the pro-choice rallying cry: “[T]he rights and lives of women must be taken into account,” after the Supreme Court ruling last month.

To be sure, the Democrats’ rhetorical shift leftward should be viewed cynically. “Plan B” remains committed to salvaging U.S. imperial interests, at home and abroad. Not a single Democratic presidential hopeful has proposed withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq, but merely combat troops. This distinction is not a matter of semantics. Withdrawing only combat troops still leaves tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers staffing permanent military bases in Iraq after a U.S. “withdrawal”, as a key component of an enduring military presence to enforce U.S. (and Israeli) interests throughout the Middle East.

Those who seek social change should not rely on politicians of either party, but at the same time, we should recognize that mainstream politics is shifting leftward due to pressure from below. That pressure must continue, and escalate, to achieve genuine reforms.

SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: sharon@internationalsocialist.org

 

 

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