US election - What the Democrats did to implement the Bush agenda

Nov/Dec 2004

During the last three-and-a-half years of the Bush administration, the US government has carried out one attack after another against the working population in favour of the wealthy. The US is now engaged in two big imperialist "adventures" in Afghanistan and Iraq, this generation's version of the Viet Nam War. Three big tax cuts worth more than 1.7 trillion dollars over 10 years (with a fourth one for corporations having just passed both houses of Congress) have shifted the tax burden ever more from the wealthy and the big corporations onto the shoulders of the working and middle classes and the poor.

According to an analysis done by the Congressional Budget Office in August, "effective tax rates... are shifted down the income distribution in shares of taxes." Coupled with the huge increases in military spending to pay for the wars (as well as not-so-hidden subsidies to the defence contractors), the tax cuts have led to enormous budget deficits. These deficits have then been used to justify the cutting of federal programs that benefit ordinary people, such as education, health care, public services - and revenue sharing with states and cities, leading to further cuts in the same programs.

At the same time, the government has openly taken on more repressive powers over the population, as laid out in its USA Patriot Act. Finally, the government is more openly encouraging and advocating the most reactionary and backward attitudes, and first of all against the reproductive rights of women, by the passage of the law banning what the politicians gratuitously call "partial-birth abortion."

The Senate - under Democratic control

Where were the Democrats, who were in a position to stop the attacks? They didn't even try.

In the first four months after Bush took office, at the beginning of 2001, control of the US Senate was shared between the Democrats and Republicans. They each had 50 votes, and they shared the committee chairmanships. In late May, however, the Democrats became the majority party in the Senate, when Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont denounced the Bush agenda as being too "extreme," defected from the Republican Party, and became an independent. This gave the Democrats a majority of one, 50 Democrats to 49 Republicans, with one independent. But given how the Senate is run, this could have given the Democrats decisive power over legislation. Tom Daschle became the majority leader, and the Democrats took over the chairmanship of most Senate committees and subcommittees.

The Democrats now had the means to decide which laws made it out of committee, and thus onto the Senate floor to be voted on - as well as which bills never came up for a vote. This meant that not only did the Democrats in the Senate have the means to vote down any Bush proposal - if they had maintained party discipline, they had an even more powerful means to prevent anything reprehensible from ever being brought up for a vote.

After the mid-term election of 2002 the Democrats lost five seats in the Senate, and they became the minority party. But that did not leave them without any power, since Congress remained closely divided. The Democrats still had enough votes to tie up and block legislation. Since it takes only 60 votes to cut off debate in Congress, they could have stalled any bill until it died. Indeed, they had virtual veto power over any legislation that went against the interests of working people - if they had wanted it. The Republicans had certainly stalled legislation as a minority party during Clinton's first two years when the Democrats had the majority in both houses of Congress.

But the Democrats stopped none of the major new measures that the Bush administration presented.

Democrats speed through tax cuts for the rich

One of the first priorities of the Bush administration was to rush to the aid of the wealthy and big business by cutting their taxes. Almost immediately after it took office, it presented its first big tax cut for the wealthy, worth an enormous 1.6 trillion dollars over 10 years, with substantial cuts to the top income tax rates, the phasing out of estate taxes, etc.

At first, the Democrats denounced these tax cuts for being so big that they would result in "irresponsible" budget deficits. Some Democrats even dared denounce them for favouring the rich.

As an alternative, the Democrats offered up their own somewhat smaller tax cut - valued at 900 billion dollars over 10 years - a package that, as a gesture to their voting base, contained a few crumbs for ordinary people. But Democratic opposition to the Republican tax cut was little more than a speed bump on the road to its quick passage.

By early March 2001, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed the tax cut practically unchanged from the Bush administration's original legislation. All Republicans supported the measure, along with 10 Democrats, who broke ranks and supported the Republicans.

The tax cut bill then landed in the evenly-divided Senate's lap, where the Democrats went through the motions of pretending to oppose Bush, presenting their own version of the tax cut, which was quickly voted down by a 61 to 39 margin. The Democrats couldn't even get enough of their own party to support it.

The Democratic leadership in the Senate, having made a weak gesture of opposing the Bush tax cuts for propaganda purposes, then went on to offer up the Bush tax plan with just a few small changes. This all happened within record speed. By early April 2001, the Senate had passed the tax cut by a 65 to 35 margin, with 12 Democrats voting for it.

Democratic Party majority leader Daschle did use the small changes passed by the Democrats to declare a victory against the Bush White House, claiming that the bill that the Senate had voted for included "only" 80 per cent of what Bush had originally proposed. This was obviously just a manoeuvre to cover for the fact that the Democrats in the equally divided Senate had just provided a big margin of victory to a tax bill that was an enormous attack against the working and middle classes.

The following year, in early 2002, the Bush administration introduced a series of tax breaks for corporations. It then tied these to the temporary funding of the 13-week extension for unemployment benefits. Of course, funding for the unemployment benefits was temporary - and set to run out in six months, right after the November election, while the tax cuts for the corporations were permanent. By this time, after Jeffords' defection from the Republicans, the Democrats held the majority in the Senate. Nonetheless, along with the Republicans, the Democrats used the temporary funding for extended unemployment benefits as the excuse to support the bill, and it flew through the Senate by a margin of 85 to 9.

It was in the November 2002 midterm elections, that the Democrats lost seats in both the House and the Senate. Implying that it was the population's fault that they were not in a stronger position to oppose Bush, the Democrats threw up their hands and pretended that there was nothing they could do now but stand aside and criticise Bush and the Republicans. "They're taking money from working people -- Social Security taxes, Medicare taxes -- and they're using it to give to other folks tax breaks," said Representative Gene Taylor, Democrat of Mississippi. The Democrats obviously want people to forget that in 2001 and 2002, they helped put through these very same tax bills that they were now denouncing.

What's even more significant is that today, in mid-October 2004, on the very eve of the 2004 election, only 14 Democrats in the Senate voted against the $136bn corporate tax cut. Even now, while pretending to oppose these tax cuts, the majority of the Democrats vote for them!

Greasing the slide to war against Iraq

Today, the highly unpopular and costly war in Iraq very much weighs on the current election. The official line of Kerry and the Democrats is that the war in Iraq is "the wrong war at the wrong time." This allows Kerry to appear critical of the war in Iraq - even while he says he will fight it on to "victory," sending over more troops if necessary to get that "victory," while also bringing in more US troops into Afghanistan, and being "tougher" against Iran and North Korea, the other two parts of Bush's own demonic "Axis of Evil."

Kerry and the Democrats, as much as Bush and the Republicans, make use of all the lies about the supposed "war against terrorism" to justify every war and every attack against the population here at home, just as both parties did in the past, when they invoked the "Red Menace."

But even if, as Kerry and the Democrats now say, the war in Iraq is "the wrong war at the wrong time," what did they do to stop it happening? Certainly, given its control of the Senate in 2001 and 2002, the Democratic Party was in a position to block the war, by both blocking any resolution for war, as well as the war's funding. But it obviously did neither.

In the spring and early summer of 2002, when the Bush administration was trying to prepare public opinion to support the war, every opinion poll showed that the US population overwhelmingly opposed it. At that time, the Democrats and Republicans went through a little dance in which they agreed to disagree. Bush said that he didn't need a vote from Congress to go to war. The supposed doves in the Democratic Party insisted that Bush bring the matter before Congress for a vote. The Democrats even attacked the Bush administration for disregarding the Constitution and usurping power from Congress. But it was nothing but a show aimed at appearing to oppose Bush's war, while giving it support.

That show didn't last long. Bush deferred to Congress and agreed to bring a war resolution up to Congress for a vote. At that point, the Democratic leadership in both houses of Congress announced that they would support Bush's war resolution, repeating all of Bush's lies about Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction, as well as the lies about his supposed ties to al-Qaeda terrorists. Richard Gephardt, the Democratic House minority leader, then wrote the Congressional war resolution. The Democrats claimed that in return for their support, Bush agreed to several of their conditions - like the need supposedly to obtain "international" support. In fact, as written by Gephardt, the resolution authorised Bush to use armed force "as he determines to be necessary and appropriate" to defend the nation against "the continuing threat posed by Iraq." The Democrats did not even write in a condition that Bush had to go before Congress for a second authorisation to go to war.

The resolution was rammed through both houses, by Republicans and Democrats alike. When a few dissident Democrats in the Senate made a show of holding up the resolution for further "debate and deliberation," debate was shut off by a 75 to 25 margin, despite the Democrats' control of the Senate at the time.

Finally, on 11 October 2002, a war resolution passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming support: in the Republican-controlled House the vote was 296 to 133 with 81 Democrats voting for it. In the Democratic-controlled Senate, it passed by a wider margin: 77 to 23, with 29, that is a majority of Democrat senators, voting for it.

Once the US launched the war on Iraq and it became a disaster, several Democrats distanced themselves from the Bush administration by accusing him of "misleading" them. But this political posturing never did get in the way of them loyally voting all the war credits that the Bush administration asked for. Twice, in April 2003 and July 2004, the Senate voted unanimously - that is, without one Democrat voting against it - to grant extra funds for the war. In October 2003, a few Democratic senators, like John Kerry and John Edwards, did vote against war credits. But everyone knows that those votes had more to do with their efforts to catch up to Howard Dean, who had leaped to the front of the pack as the anti-war candidate in the Democratic primaries.

Not by any stretch of the imagination is the Iraq war just Bush's war. The Democrats are just as fully implicated.

In fact, preparations for the war had been laid down by Clinton during his administration. He started all the lies that Bush subsequently picked up on to justify the war. In 1998, Clinton accused Iraq of being "an outlaw nation" in league with an "unholy axis of terrorists, drug traffickers and organised international criminals." Clinton warned that Saddam will go "right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction," and said that "if we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow. The stakes could not be higher. Some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal."

The rest of the Democrats spouted the same line. Here is Tom Daschle justifying war in 1998, five years before Bush: "Look, we have exhausted virtually all our diplomatic efforts to get the Iraqis to comply with their own agreements and with international law. Given that, what other option is there but to force them to do so?" As for John Kerry, he said he regularly saw intelligence presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee which confirmed the existence of weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam was in league with terrorists ready to attack the US. Kerry went so far as to brag that his readiness to use ground troops in Iraq put him "way ahead of the commander in chief, and I'm probably way ahead of my colleagues, and certainly much of the country. But I believe this." (As reported in the Boston Globe of February 23, 1998.)

Of course the 1,000 pages of the Duelfer CIA report, just released in early October 2004, based on those same intelligence reports that Kerry read in 1998, confirms that as early as 1992-93 the CIA had reported that Saddam had destroyed all of his weapons of mass destruction and his capability to build them - and that he never tried to rebuild those stocks.

No, it wasn't just Bush and Cheney who lied about the weapons of mass destruction, but Clinton, Gore, Daschle, Gephardt... and Kerry. If Bush was able to play the game over weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the war, it was because the Democrats had prepared the way for him, well in advance.

The Clinton administration prepared for Bush's 2003 war with the regular bombing of the country and the devastating economic embargo. The policy that Clinton carried out during his eight years cost the lives of as many as two million Iraqis.

Yes, the war against Iraq is very much the Democrats' war also. Republicans and Democrats were always in it together.

The bipartisan USA Patriot Act

Today, the ACLU, the Centre for Constitutional Rights, the Lawyers Guild and many other groups denounce the Bush administration for its open attacks against civil liberties: the USA Patriot Act, the imprisoning of people without trial, the sweeps that have led to the imprisoning thousands of people under the flimsiest of pretexts, and the repressive apparatus personified by the right-wing fundamentalist, John Ashcroft, the number one US lawman.

The question they don't ask, however, is why the Democrats didn't stop the USA-Patriot Act. Why did they rush to support the law with both hands? In the Senate, where the Democrats held a majority, the vote was almost unanimous. Only Russell Feingold voted against it. As for the House of Representatives, it passed it by 357 votes to 66.

Today the USA Patriot Act is so unpopular, nearly 350 local governments and four state legislatures have passed resolutions opposing or criticising it. Trying to back away from what they did, the Democrats pretend that they didn't know what was in the law. In the film Fahrenheit 911, Representative John Conyers from Detroit, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, told Michael Moore that most representatives voted for the law without having read its 350 pages.

Yet in 2001, when Ashcroft went to Congress to present the original bill that would become the USA-Patriot Act, Conyers himself was quoted in the New York Times as saying that Ashcroft assured him that "in no way would we go outside the Constitution." The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, assured the public, "There are far more things that unite us than divide us. We all have the same Constitution." Both Conyers and Leahy were part of the Congressional delegation - which also included John Kerry - that met with Ashcroft and his deputies to shape the final law. Maybe other members of Congress didn't bother to read the bill. But Conyers, Leahy and Kerry surely did, unless they were sleeping during all those meetings with Ashcroft. Kerry even called the Patriot Act "a reasonable compromise."

No, the USA Patriot Act is not just a product of Bush and Ashcroft, but of the Democratic leaders in Congress as well. Even today, the Democratic Policy Committee (DPC), the official body of the Democratic Senators, writes that the USA Patriot Act "was the product of bipartisan cooperation..." That's right - the Democratic senators are proud of it. The DPC then goes on to summarise their proud achievement, which "...provides law enforcement the tools it needs to combat terrorism while protecting the civil liberties of every American. The Act significantly enhances the ability of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to wiretap phones and to monitor email and Internet communications."

The talk about protecting "civil liberties" was nothing but a cover for greater spying on the population and repression!

But should this be a surprise? The Democrats were never the ones who protected civil liberties. It was the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s that forced the government, the police and FBI to back off from some of their most egregious practices against ordinary people. But ever since, the politicians of both parties have used every opportunity to remove the constraints placed on them, bringing things back to the way they were before, using the supposed fight against crime, and then later terrorism, as the excuse.

No protection on abortion either

It is in the so-called "culture wars" where the differences between Democrats and Republicans are supposed to be the sharpest. First, obviously, is the question of women's right to choose to have an abortion. The battle lines were supposed to be drawn in October 2003 over passage of the first law banning a specific abortion procedure used late in the second trimester.

The term "partial birth abortion" was coined by a right-wing, anti-abortion US Representative from Florida named Charles Canady in 1995 to demonise what was then a relatively new surgical procedure, required only rarely, and then primarily to save the life or the health of the mother. Canady's medically wrong, demagogic term - taken over and used by both Democratic and Republican politicians - soon became the rallying cry by extreme right-wingers to revive the flagging anti-abortion movement.

How this bill became law reveals that the differences between Democrats and Republicans on abortion are much narrower than the supporters of the Democrats would like to admit. When the bill was introduced into the Senate, a self-proclaimed advocate of reproductive rights, Senator Barbara Boxer of California, devised a way to get it out of committee. She attached a statement to the bill affirming the Senate's support of Roe v Wade - the famous 1973 ruling by the Supreme Court which guaranteed women's right to have a legal abortion up to the end of the first trimester. As if that kind of statement any difference at all, compared to the kind damage to abortion rights that the bill the Senate was voting on would cause, if enacted. At the time, Boxer hypocritically said that she wanted to use the vote to allow the Senate to go on record affirming a woman's right to choose.

The Senate anti-abortion forces jumped on the opportunity the pro-choice senators gave them. The vote approving the ban turned out to be unanimous, 93 to 0, that is, with the support of senators who claimed to be pro-choice. When the bill went to conference with the House, the pro-choice statement was stripped out, and the final bill was once again presented to the Senate. And once again, the Senate Democrats did not condemn the bill for what it was: an attack on women's rights. On the contrary, it was passed, by a vote of 64 to 33. Seventeen Democrats voted for it, giving it the margin needed for clear victory. These included Senate Democrat leader, Tom Daschle, and other self-proclaimed supporters of abortion rights. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat from Arkansas said, "I'm about 99 percent pro-choice" - and then voted the other one percent - to ban the procedure. Daschle's excuse for supporting the measure was that he thought that it would be better if the federal courts ruled on the measure. No, it would have been better had the law never been passed.

Three times within the past year, federal judges have overturned the new law on constitutional grounds. However even if the Supreme Court eventually rules against the law, its passage still did damage to women's reproductive rights. By banning a medical procedure - even for a short time - the Senate put itself on record as ready to interfere in what should be a medical choice made only by a woman and her doctor. No doubt, the politicians of both parties will try to posture and exploit this for their own purposes in the future.

In fact it should be remembered that it is not the Republicans, but the Democrats who enacted the biggest limitation on women's access to abortion. The 1977 Hyde Amendment banned the use of federal funds by poor women for an abortion. This law was passed by a Senate with a Democratic majority and a House of Representatives with a very large Democratic majority, and signed by a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. On those occasions afterwards, when the Democrats controlled the government, they could have overturned it. But they never bothered even to make it an issue. Just as they never bothered to penalise hospitals that refuse to perform abortions, nor required those medical schools in the country that have stopped teaching the techniques for abortion procedures, to start teaching them again.

In fact, the record of the Democrats in Congress and in the executive branch on abortion rights is appalling. They are not, in any way, a protection for women. They have eroded and limited those rights, and turned a blind eye when others did so.

Nonetheless, we hear today that a Democratic president will be a safeguard because he will appoint federal appeal court judges and justices to the Supreme Court who will be the last line of defence against the attacks on women's reproductive rights. According to this line of argument, women should put their fate in the hands of a Kerry, the same Kerry who has already affirmed that he is for further limitations on abortion rights (to make abortions increasingly rare as he says), the same Kerry who has already confirmed that he is willing to appoint judges who might also further limit abortion rights - so long as they do not support an outright end to Roe v. Wade. In other words, it means supporting someone who intends to continue to empty reproductive rights of all but their formal shell. That formal shell, even today, offers no protection to the majority of women in this country who have no actual access to abortion, either because publicly funded medical programs won't pay for them or because they live where hospitals and clinics won't perform them.

How to oppose Bush's policies

The appeal of Kerry and the Democrats is based on the same old assumption: that as a practical matter, they are the "lesser evil " and the only practical opposition that can stop Bush.

Of course, we have seen what they mean by opposing Bush in a "practical" sense. They haven't even slowed him down. The Democrats may justify this by saying that they are a minority. Of course, no one bothers to ask why it is that when the Republicans are in the majority and the Democrats are in the minority, the Democrats can't seem to block any of the Republican programs. But when the Republicans are in the minority, they manage to block what the Democrats say they want to pass. Only the most token legislation gets through.

If the Republicans can always block the Democrats, especially when it comes to questions like union rights, minimum wage, health care, why can't the Democrats do the same kind of blocking when it comes to war, tax cuts for the wealthy, or limiting abortion rights? Not only that, but why is it that the Democrats seem to supply the margin of victory to the Republicans every time? The Republicans discipline their troops when it comes to passing their program. The Democrats don't - at least when it comes to protecting the interests of working people. This political game has always been played out whenever there is no mobilisation of the population.

In fact, the whole "lesser of two evils" ploy is just a political game to convince the population to put their hopes in one of the two parties, get more Democrats elected, and thereby force the Democrats to supposedly stiffen their spines, make "the Democrats become the Democrats again," build up the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" and other very clever sounding nonsense. In the meantime, all the population can do is wait for the next election. More importantly, that is what the politicians hope it will do.

History has shown, however, that what matters most is not what party is in office. What matters is whether the population is active, organised and mobilised to push for its own demands. When the population was active, no matter which party was in office, the population made gains. For example, the big workers movements of the 1930s and 1940s forced the passage of Social Security old age pensions, unemployment insurance, the end of child labour and the introduction of social welfare legislation. These gains were expanded and added onto by the black movement of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Those gains were made, sometimes with the Republicans and sometimes with Democrats in office. If legislative reforms were enacted under the Democrat, Johnson, even more gains were made under arch-conservative Republican Richard Nixon, as those big social movements peaked during his tenure. What counted was what the population did. Not who was in office.

The 2004 election, which has been made to appear so vital and key, is in reality only a question of who will continue to defend the big corporations and the wealthy by carrying out the same attacks, both here and abroad, against the working population and the poor. It will be shown to be the circus that it is, void of any other meaning, the day the population mobilises to fight for its own interests.