The following article was originally written at the end of January by the American Trotskyist group "The Spark" and published in its quarterly (Class Struggle #42). It has been updated for the present issue of our journal in order to take the latest developments into account.
At the time of writing, only two candidates seem to have a realistic chance of winning the Democratic primaries and gaining the Democrats' official nomination to stand against Bush in next November's presidential contest - Massachusetts senator John Kerry and North Carolina senator John Edwards.
Up until the Iowa primary, on 19 January, former Vermont governor Howard Dean seemed to be the frontrunner. He had the highest standing in opinion polls, the most campaign contributions and he had consistently drawn the largest crowds. According to one report, in Iowa he drew crowds that were eight times larger than his nearest rival, Missouri representative Dick Gephardt, even though Iowa was Gephardt's backyard. Moreover Dean had racked up the endorsements of the two biggest unions in the country, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) and the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) while gaining the endorsements of Al Gore and Bill Bradley, the former top rivals for the party's nomination four years ago, as well as that of Tom Harkin, Iowa's senior senator.
And yet, a year before, Dean was still ranked at the bottom of the polls. A Newsweek poll from January 2003 scored Dean at 4%. Dean was an unknown with a tiny organisation, almost no money and no prospects. He certainly didn't have the national recognition or connections of some of his rivals like John Kerry or senator Joe Lieberman. He didn't have the union ties of Missouri representative Dick Gephardt. His record as governor was not particularly attractive to the Democratic Party base, since he had cut education and social programs many times. Finally, Dean had no political advantage as a governor of Vermont, a state whose entire population totals only 600,000 people. And since New England is already a solid Democratic bastion, Dean could not even do what two other Democrat governors had done in past presidential elections - Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Clinton in 1992 and 1996 - that is, deliver some states in the staunch Republican South. He had nothing going for him, neither with the Democratic Party apparatus, nor with its traditional voting base.
Nothing - except that, by criticising Bush's push for war on Iraq very early on, he tapped into the large reservoir of opposition to the war in the population, especially in the Democratic Party's usual voting base and became the one Democratic candidate that most people associated with opposition to the war. In the early months of 2003, with the Iraq War dominating the preoccupations of so much of the population, the other Democratic presidential candidates - Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt and Edwards - were greeted by small crowds peppered with anti-war demonstrators protesting the candidates' pro-war position. Everywhere Dean went, he was met by a groundswell of support and enthusiasm. This happened before the war, after it was declared and all through the occupation. Dean's standing in the polls soared. By early January this year, he headed the pack with scores in opinion polls which were twice those of his nearest rivals.
However, in the Iowa primary on 19 January, Dean unexpectedly finished a distant third, with only half the votes of the new frontrunner, John Kerry, while Dick Gephardt came fourth. This Iowa primary marked a turning point. Gephardt quit the race and, since then, Dean has been unable to regain the ground lost. Kerry and Edwards are now left as frontrunners for the so-called "super Tuesday" - March 2 - which is generally considered as decisive because 10 states will vote on that day.
Nevertheless, despite Bush's strenuous efforts to drum up support by mobilising bigoted prejudices in a crusade against single-sex marriages, this election campaigns remain firmly dominated by the Iraq war. However, there is every reason to think that its outcome will change nothing to the US policy in Iraq.
A population against the war
When the political campaigns began in earnest in late 2002 and early 2003, there was strong opposition to the war throughout the country. Almost every city was swept by demonstrations that ranked among the largest in those cities' histories. The newspapers reported that the demonstrations were attended by "the mainstream," that is, ordinary people, families - a cross section of the country. Regularly on Friday or Saturday, there were peace vigils in little towns as well as big cities. On university campuses and in high schools, students and teachers organised teach-ins, film showings and demonstrations. In high schools in many cities, there were walkouts, often of students and teachers together - something that had not often happened during the Viet Nam War. Officers of some local trade unions created a national committee that opposed the war, which also hadn't happened on this scale during the Viet Nam War. Then of course there were the monster demonstrations on the February 15-16 weekend all over the country, including Washington, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.
City councils in large and medium-sized cities, especially where there was a large concentrated working class, passed resolutions opposing the war. Most of the resolutions called on the US to get the approval and sanction of the UN before invading, which was a way to appear to question the war, while diverting opposition in the direction of accepting the underlying assumptions for the war. But the fact that the local politicians had to pass a resolution at all was a recognition of just how widespread the anti-war sentiment had grown.
Once the US started the war on March 19, the politicians and news media triumphantly declared that the polls showed that much of this opposition had dropped off. Polls are always somewhat misleading, especially those taken in the beginning of a war, when people are careful what they answer to a stranger's questions on the phone. But even the polls soon changed, as it began to sink in that not only were the troops not welcomed in Iraq, they were also not coming home after Baghdad fell. It became obvious that they had been sent on an open-ended, dangerous and bloody occupation thousands of miles from home. Expressions of protest and anger began to come from the troops, as well as their families. Anger among the families had become so strong by summer that a colonel and his entourage had to be escorted from a meeting at Fort Stewart Georgia that turned into a near mutiny of angry wives, mothers and fathers. And the October 25, 2003 demonstration in Washington DC against the war was led by a contingent from Military Families Speak Out, an organisation of people who have family members who are soldiers in Iraq. At the march, their spokeswoman said, "Don't extend them. Don't redeploy them. Don't replace them. Bring them home now." And while there have not yet been a lot of AWOL's from the military, the Pentagon itself recently admitted that it has frozen the service tours of over 40,000 National Guards and Reserves who had requested to be mustered out of the service when their duty time was up.
Today, there may be fewer demonstrations than before the war started. But the war remains deeply unpopular. As the January 8 Los Angeles Times pointed out, recent Gallup polls show that only 35% of the population say that the US was right to go to war - while nearly 60% tell the pollsters that the US didn't have sufficient reason to invade Iraq.
The positive reaction met initially by Dean was itself a testimony to how unpopular the war was and had been. Not only did his continued denunciations throughout the entire period not cost him support - as the traditional "wisdom" predicted it should have - but it grew at the expense of his rivals, who, either like Gephardt and Lieberman, openly supported the war outright, or like Kerry and Edwards, soon began to hedge their support of the war with criticism of the Bush administration.
The Democratic party leadership backs the war
Almost from the start of the drive to war, the Democratic congressional leadership had lined up behind Bush. They endorsed every one of his lies, from the Iraqi "terrorist threat," to the infamous claims about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction." On June 3, 2002, House Minority leader Dick Gephardt announced that he was ready to work with the Bush administration "to build an effective policy to terminate the threat posed by the Iraqi regime," or in plain English to go to war. Gephardt then proceeded to write the Congressional resolution giving Bush a blank cheque to launch this war. On October 10, 2002, Congress adopted this resolution by a wide margin, 77 to 23 in the Senate and 296 to 133 in the House. In both houses of Congress, there were more than enough votes from the Democrats to assure the wide margin. In the Senate, a majority of Democrats, 29 (including Kerry, Edwards and Lieberman), voted to authorise war, while only 21 voted against. In the House of Representatives, where 126 voted against the war, 81 (including Gephardt), nonetheless voted for it, more than enough to let Bush claim he had bi-partisan support for the war. Moreover, as their speeches made clear, these Democratic "No" votes did not really mean "No" - they meant only that the Democrats would have liked Bush first to get the approval of the UN before he went to war. After the votes, both House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Senator Joseph Lieberman joined Bush for the bill-signing ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.
It was the usual Democratic Party game. Some Democrats came out against the war - enough to allow the Democrats to be able today to put the blame for the war back in Bush's lap, but not enough to have blocked the war at the time, or at the very least made Bush's political life much more difficult.
By the early summer of 2003, it had become clear that the occupation was turning into a bloody and costly quagmire. A few Democrats tried to publicly distance themselves from the war. Gephardt, Kerry and Edwards all accused the Bush administration of lying about the weapons of mass destruction, about the supposed Iraqi threat - as if these politicians were not aware of the intelligence the CIA and some military men had circulated - not to mention all the reports from the UN weapons inspectors that contradicted Bush administration claims.
Some Democrats began to call for investigations and public hearings about the forged documents from Niger that the Bush administration had used as supposed proof that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons. Or else they denounced the war profiteering of such companies as Haliburton and Bechtel. And they questioned whether the Bush administration had properly planned for the occupation.
But none of this rhetoric stopped the Democrats in Congress from voting all the extra war credits that the Bush administration wanted, $67bn in the spring and another $87bn in October. The second time, with a Gallup poll showing that 56% of the US population opposed the new credits, Kerry and Edwards did vote against. But that didn't stop the $87bn from gaining two more Democratic votes in the House of Representatives, and eight more in the Senate, as compared to the number of Democrats who had voted for the original October 2002 Congressional war authorisation.
In other words, even as the Bush administration was coming under more fire from the professionals who run the state apparatus, as well as a rising tide of anti-war sentiment in the population, the Democrats closed ranks with the Bush administration, voting more money for the war, at the same time providing Bush with the political cover that he needed to continue the war.
Manoeuvres and lies
Nonetheless, anti-war sentiment continued to increase, and Dean's poll numbers to grow. Among the Democratic contenders, Lieberman alone continued to endorse the war completely, and his standing went on eroding. His support for the war may not totally explain the ever smaller crowds for his speeches and his sinking poll numbers. But, at the very least, putting himself forward as the sole unconditional supporter of the war did not improve his chances. The other Democratic presidential candidates had all moved to distance themselves from support for the war, complaining one after the other about Bush's lying ways.
At the point last summer that Dean was outdistancing all the others, the "anti-war" general, Wesley Clark, a relative unknown domestically, was pushed into the race by Bill and Hillary Clinton. Clark, who put himself forward as a military man who had always questioned Bush's justification for the war, immediately emerged as one of the front-runners. His entry is certainly a maneuver of some sort aimed at Dean, but exactly what Clark (or the Clintons, who continue openly to support the war) have in mind is not so clear.
Today, the Democrats who did nothing to oppose the war when it might have counted, are obviously trying to figure out today how to make it seem that they did. At the same time, the Democrats are looking over their shoulder at Bush, who with the cooperation of most of the news media is trying to bury what is really happening in Iraq, the worsening conditions, the continuing clashes between US occupation forces and the Iraqi people or insurgents, the growing number of US killed and wounded. Instead more and more the front page news is filled with all the Bush administration's happy talk: how the US is supposedly reducing the number of troops in Iraq from 120,000 to 105,000 by the end of May, and how the US is "building democracy" by supposedly "helping" to form a new Iraqi government, to which the US will supposedly hand over sovereignty by June 30th, therefore supposedly formally ending the occupation, etc.
If Bush gets away with peddling this fiction, if he succeeds in making the real war in Iraq disappear as a concern, then there is no doubt that he will waltz to victory in the November 2004 election, and then take the election as a mandate to pursue the war, which he had temporarily pushed into the shadows.
Opposing Bush, while supporting his war
But if the Democrats did beat Bush, what would any of them do to end the war that they are now criticising?
Today, all of the major Democratic candidates, except Lieberman who has staked out the most pro-war position, may continue to denounce the war as "wrong" and a "terrible gamble," in Dean's words. But Dean, Kerry, Clark and Edwards all agree that they support the continuing occupation of Iraq. Even Howard Dean, despite his early opposition to the war, said, "Now that we're there, we're stuck." In other words, if he's elected, he will have to live with the choice Bush made. "We have no choice. It's a matter of national security. If we leave .. Iraq, the result is a very significant danger to the United States." (Washington Post, August 25, 2003).
The only difference that these Democrats say that they have with Bush is that they would find a way to bring in the United Nations to Iraq, and, therefore, lower the cost of the occupation for the US. Typical of this kind of rhetoric is what Kerry wrote last October, when he explained that his vote against Bush's request for $87bn to continue the war was not a vote against the war. Said Kerry, "America's national security requires a muscular strategy that brings freedom and prosperity to post-war Iraq... [But] I disagree with the Bush approach because it simply doesn't share the burden with other countries... I think we win the peace in Iraq by internationalising this effort. We have to have the UN."
Certainly, none of these candidates propose to bring the troops home any time soon. Nor have they stepped forward to denounce the Bush administration's manoeuvres to increase troop strength, that will undoubtedly be used to step up the war. The US is in the process of shipping over 105,000 fresh troops to Iraq, with over 40% of these troops being either National Guards or Reserves. The Bush administration may talk about bringing other troops home - in the future, of course. But for now, they will overlap, bringing the total number of US troops in Iraq to over 200,000 for an unspecified period of time. And the military is taking other measures to keep at least some of the veteran troops in combat longer. It has already frozen 7,000 troops in Iraq past their discharge date. And the administration decided to offer bonuses of up to $10,000 to any soldier who signs up for as long as three years more, for additional duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.
And that is not all. According to Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker magazine (December 15, 2003), the Pentagon is also bringing in thousands of Special Forces and paid mercenaries in order to carry out targeted assassinations in a programme similar to the Phoenix programme that the US used during the Viet Nam War from 1968 to 1972, which killed an estimated 70,000 Vietnamese.
So, while the Bush administration claims soothingly that it will be reducing its troops in Iraq, for the time being it seems to be stepping-up the US war in Iraq, thereby pointing to a growing bloodbath for the Iraqi people.
Where are Kerry, Clark, Edwards and Dean while all this is going on? Are they denouncing the numbers game that is covering the increase in troop strength in Iraq? Are they trying to mobilise the Democrats to prevent Bush from sending any more troops over there? Have they even raised the issue? No, no and no again.
While building up the army for Iraq, the Bush administration has been playing up the supposed terrorist threat, declaring orange alerts, cancelling flights, fingerprinting and photographing immigrants' visas - anything and everything to create an atmosphere of hysteria - while it buries the real war, the US war against Iraq.
Certainly, the Democratic candidates could use the electoral platform to expose what the Bush administration is doing right now and the lies it is floating, rather than concentrating on the lies it told before, about which nothing can be done. If they want to reproach Bush for his lies about weapons of mass destruction, at the very least they could make the connection between those lies to justify starting the war and the lies being told now to keep it going.
The election of Clark, Kerry, Edwards or even Dean would not bring this war to a stop. It would simply exchange a Democrat for the Republican currently running the war.
Re-running of an old game
It would not be the first time that a party had run on anti-war sentiments, but then, once in power, pursued that same war. In 1916, in the middle of World War I, Woodrow Wilson ran for a second term as president under the slogan, "He kept us out of war" only to turn around after his inauguration in March 1917 to lead the US directly into war one month later. In 1940, Roosevelt ran for president, using "neutrality" during World War II as a cover while preparing for the US entrance into that war - including by blockading the Japanese so completely that they were forced to attack to open up the trade lanes. In 1964, vice-president Lyndon Johnson ran as the so-called "peace candidate" against Republican Barry Goldwater, portraying Goldwater as a warmonger who would take the nation to war in Viet Nam. Immediately after his landslide victory in the election, Johnson sharply escalated the war that he had already been pursuing.
Of course, the Democrats weren't the only ones to play the "peace" card during an election. In 1968, the Republican Richard Nixon ran in the middle of the Viet Nam War, promising that he had a "secret peace" plan to end the war in Viet Nam. Once elected, Nixon pursued the Viet Nam War for another five years, ordering the heaviest bombing of the war at the very end. And, yes, even in the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush attacked the Clinton administration, including Gore, for "nation building" - that is, all the recent small wars that the Clinton administration had carried out, as in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo.
What is taking place today is only a repeat of a game already played by the bourgeois parties. Hopefully what won't be repeated is the disorientation the US population felt in earlier times when the "anti-war" candidate took the nation into war or expanded an unpopular war.
The union machineries
As usual, the AFL-CIO and its constituent union machineries are supporting players in the electoral game. For them, ther main question was which of the Democrats to support in the primaries.
The AFL-CIO had been expected to hand its endorsement over to Representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri, their long-time close ally. But when Dean gained the lead in the summer, the AFL-CIO first postponed its decision, then finally left it up to the various constituent unions to make their own decisions. Some of the industrial unions, led by the Teamsters, Steelworkers and Machinists - 21 in all - did line up behind Gephardt. But unexpectedly the UAW, one of the unions most closely identified with him, did not. Officially, the International union left it up to the various UAW regions and locals to endorse the candidates of their own choice. In Vermont, a UAW local endorsed Dean, while in Iowa the region endorsed Gephardt.
But then the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades with 140,000 members endorsed the Dean campaign. After that the two biggest unions in the AFL-CIO - AFSCME and the SEIU - endorsed him in a dramatic joint announcement. AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said his union had also considered endorsing Clark.
Support for Dean was not predicated on the union apparatuses' own opposition to the war. None of the top union leaders had opposed it. At the very most, during the build-up to the war, the SEIU issued a weak-worded letter that said that the US government ought to get UN approval. But it said nothing when AFL-CIO President John Sweeney announced the federation's support for the war, under the guise of supporting the troops. And they haven't changed since.
Neither did the unions which endorsed Dean do so because they were impressed by his record as governor. As governor, Dean carried out budget cuts in social programs and education, along with the tax and fee increases for working people. In fact he was no different in this regard than other Democratic governors. Nor did Dean ever go out of his way to smooth things over with union officials, as most other Democrats had done. Instead, as governor of Vermont, Dean fashioned himself as a Clinton-style, "centrist" Democrat, "not beholden" to "the special interests," which are nothing but code words for unions. In fact, Dean has never paid much attention to the unions. There are only 35,000 union members in the entire state of Vermont, and most of them are teachers. And Dean had attacked the teachers unions by proposing to overhaul the bargaining procedure in the state. When the unions opposed it, he went ahead and tried to implement it anyway. The teachers' unions refused to endorse Dean in either his 1996 or 1998 election runs.
Besides that, Dean often took the kinds of political stands that antagonised the union apparatuses. As the governor of a state on the border of Canada, Dean endorsed NAFTA. He spoke in favour of privatising a lot of state jobs. He attacked Social Security, saying that the retirement age should be raised to 68 or even 70. And he said that Medicare was a complete mess and ought to be overhauled, including by cutting benefits.
So, why did these unions endorse Dean? SEIU President Andrew Stern spelled it out when he and McEntee made their announcement. According to Stern, "a candidate that can energise people to get to the polls, a candidate that can raise the money to be heard, and a candidate that can draw clear distinctions between himself and George Bush is a candidate that's going to win." In other words, the calculation made by AFSCME and the SEIU was simply that, at that point, their assessment was that Dean had the best chance of beating Bush.
Now, of course, with Gephardt and Dean out of the race, the problem is posed in different terms. Hence the announcement by the AFL-CIO leadership, on 19th February, that it was throwing its weight behind John Kerry. What the other unions decide remains to be seen, but the odds are that they will follow suit. Of course, that changes little. The union apparatuses will support no matter which Democrat becomes the party's nominee. This means that the union apparatuses will provide the Democrats with the union bureaucracy's structure for mounting campaign rallies, handing out fliers, and getting out the vote, not to speak of many millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the unions' political action funds.
The unions' efforts may help whichever Democrat who wins the nomination to cash in on the anti-war sentiment in the population. They may give him a cover, hiding his anti-working class record from view. Their efforts may create illusions even in someone like Kerry, but they will not translate into constructing an effective barrier to this war, any more than they will do anything to address the very real problems the working class confronts today inside the country. For the union apparatuses, that doesn't matter. What they want is to put a Democrat in office.
Why wait until November?
No matter which "anti-war" Democrat, Kerry or Edwards, gains the nomination, it's not at all automatic that he will win the November election. In fact, the first thing he will have to overcome is the long-standing - and very well grounded - apathy toward the elections that exists in the working class. Indeed, about half the eligible electorate has not been voting in recent years in presidential elections and the rate of abstention was higher among workers. If any of these Democrats does win the election, it will only be because larger numbers of workers than usual go out to vote, believing that his stand will translate into an end of this war.
But if all those workers can mobilise themselves to vote for someone who says he will stop the war, they can just as easily mobilise to fight against that war and to defend their own class interests at home - starting right now. There's no reason to wait for November, no reason to let nine more months of slaughter go on. And there is no reason to let the situation of the working class continue to degrade. Disgust for the politicians who led this war is widespread and deep-rooted in the working class and it is reinforced by the constant barrage of attacks being carried out against workers inside the country. Those same sentiments can be turned by the workers to their own benefit.
The main problem for working people is to begin to regain confidence in their own ability to act, mobilise and organise in defence of their own interests.