USA - "ABB": demonising Bush to justify supporting the Democrats

Jul/Aug 2004

The following article was originally written at the end of April by the American Trotskyist group "The Spark" and published in its quarterly (Class Struggle #43).

When the results of the 2 March 2004 "Super Tuesday" primaries confirmed the obvious - that John Kerry would win the Democratic Party's nomination - some previously reluctant organizations and individuals stepped up to endorse him. No one had seriously doubted that the trade union confederation, the AFL-CIO, would eventually endorse the Democratic nominee, but the AFL-CIO General Board had earlier refused to endorse anyone, including Richard Gephardt, their long-time "Congressional ally," saying they wanted to see which candidate had the best chance to beat Bush. Whatever was behind their hesitation, most top union officials did endorse Kerry as soon as he put a lock on the nomination. The endorsement was far from enthusiastic, however, consisting primarily of denunciations of Bush. For example, the communique from the AFL-CIO General Board meeting that endorsed Kerry included eight paragraphs recounting Bush's sins, followed by only one sentence about Kerry: "The AFL-CIO General Board voted to support Senator John Kerry because he'll do a terrific job for working families as the next president of the United States." It was hardly a ringing endorsement. And some unions - including the UAW and UNITE - abstained on the vote to endorse, at least for the moment.

The unions' support for Kerry could almost be reduced to an "ABB" bumper sticker (Anybody But Bush).

The AFL-CIO is not the only one to make Bush's sins the axis of their stance toward the elections. The Communist Party did the same thing. In fact, this is the normal way the CP has thrown support to a Democrat, often even in those years when it ran its own candidates. The CP rests its current stance on the argument that a large part of the population is fed up with Bush. In an article reporting on Kerry's big victory in the Super Tuesday Democratic primaries, the CP recounts the words of a history teacher who campaigned for Kerry in the primaries but who said he would vote for any Democratic nominee in November: "It's anybody but Bush. We have to get him out. He's the worst president in American history." Adding that this "was the overwhelming sentiment among millions of voters in primaries and caucuses in 10 states," the CP itself declared: "The battle lines are drawn in this election. The overwhelming sentiment of the voters is, Bush must go!'" And, just to make sure no one missed the point, the CP introduced the following box in the middle of its article: "Bush out the door in 2004." (From "The Weekly World" of March 6-12, 2004.)

Finally, there are those left-wing individuals who play some role in the political life of the country and who can usually describe the Democrats and Republicans as twins, but nonetheless find a way to justify support for the Democrats at election time. Noam Chomsky, for example, has called the two parties "two factions of the same business party." Calling Kerry "Bush-lite," Chomsky nonetheless found a way to split hairs: "But despite the limited differences both domestically and internationally, there are differences. And in this system of immense power, small differences can translate into large outcomes." (quoted by the Guardian 20 March 2004.)

The indictment against Bush

Bush has accumulated a larger campaign chest than any candidate ever amassed before, and twice as much as he collected in 2000: $180m as of the end of March. Just a glance at his biggest contributors shows that the major corporations, starting with the biggest financial interests in the country, are ready to help him stay in office.

Of course they are. The bourgeoisie has benefited during the three years of Bush's presidency. The three tax cuts imposed in the first three years of his term have gone disproportionately to the corporations and the wealthy. Between the two tax cuts enacted in 2002 and 2003, the corporations are estimated to have been given £174bn. On the individual level, the tax cuts went overwhelmingly to the wealthy. Citizens for Tax Justice estimates that the richest 20% of households got 69% of the tax breaks.

The Bush administration used the deficits created by these tax cuts to justify reducing the range of social programs and public services. In the 2004 budget, for example, there was not a single social program or public service which escaped unscathed. Many programs suffered actual cuts in funding. Those that weren't cut openly did not receive enough funding to keep pace with inflation and an increasing population. States have been cutting people off of Medicaid or restricting the services provided because funding that comes to the program from the federal government was not high enough to cover costs the states were incurring. And while the Bush administration has not so far pushed to transform the Social Security pension program into private "investment accounts," the administration continues to talk about it.

The situation in the workplace and community has certainly worsened measurably during the three years since George W. Bush took office. Under the Bush administration, workplace health and safety standards were scaled back - rules were eased, the number of inspections reduced, and more exemptions to standards granted. The same kind of thing happened with the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the Food and Drug Administration.

The two wars started under this administration have been terrible catastrophes for the Afghan and Iraqi people, while putting into the grinder the youth from a new generation, most of whom joined the army out of economic necessity.

Civil liberties and democratic rights have been further restricted under the series of laws pushed through under the guise of responding to terrorism after 9/11. Many of the anti-terrorism laws were written in such a loose way as to apply to workers on strike or to any demonstration aimed at changing government policy, for example, to end a war.

The Bush administration has pushed through legislation further restricting women's right to abortion. And the steady stream of propaganda coming out of the White House about "defending the life" of the unborn has encouraged those right wing fanatics who attack medical personnel and harass those women who dare go to an abortion clinic.

Finally, Bush has made a special appeal to right wing and religious fundamentalist forces - encouraging in the process a whole range of reactionary attitudes and policies: the attempt to substitute religion for science in the public schools; the diversion of public school moneys to private schools, usually religious ones; the push to impose the death penalty more frequently, as well as to cut off avenues of appeal for those already condemned; the attacks on gay and lesbian couples under the guise of "defending the sanctity of marriage."

The Democrats' record - no better

Everyone can agree: Bush is terrible. This does not mean that the Democrats serve the interests of the working class. Not at all.

When we look at the record, the supposed small difference that divides the Democrats from the Republicans disappears. The Democratic Party was complicit in imposing Bush's attacks on the working class, starting first of all with the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the range of repressive laws known collectively as the Patriot Acts. The war against Afghanistan was authorised in the Senate by 98 to 0, with two Republicans not voting. Not a single Democrat raised a question, not a one. The resolution that authorised war on Iraq not only gained the votes of the majority of Democrats, including Kerry, but it was written by none other than Richard Gephardt, Democratic House leader. Moreover, we should remember that almost every Democrat who voted against the broad Iraq war authorisation did so only in protest of the fact that Bush was pushing to go to war before he got authorisation from the UN, and not in protest of a possible war itself. The bills authorising money to start and then pursue the war were passed with even more Democratic Party votes. If Kerry - reading the poll numbers on the population's growing opposition to this war - voted against the second money authorisation, he made it explicitly clear that he would not halt the war if he were in the White House. Rather, he would seek to involve the UN more fully in its prosecution. Even Dean, whose early top standing in the polls was a reflection of the population's growing opposition to the war, agreed with Kerry that the war, once engaged, has to be pursued to a "correct resolution." And Kerry, recently, looking forward to what he would do as president, has made it all too clear that he intends to pursue this war to its bitter end.

As for the first edition of the repressive "Patriot Act," it too was passed - all 350 pages of it - with a very large majority of Democrats lined up behind it. In the Senate, every Democrat but one voted for this repressive legislation; in the House, almost two-thirds of the Democrats voted for it. No one should have been surprised. After all, Clinton had already tightened the screws on democratic rights, using the Oklahoma City bombing to push through a so-called "anti-terrorism" act, just as Bush did using 9/11. In fact, the Bush administration is able today to push for faster imposition of death sentences because Clinton's "anti-terrorism law" removed many of the rights to appeal in ordinary capital cases, including the right to introduce newly found evidence of innocence later in the appeal process.

In the early days after September 11, Democrats as well as Republicans spoke of "national unity" as Congress almost unanimously passed a range of bills that, taken together, increased spending on military programs and bail-outs to corporations - at the expense of all the social programs and public services funded by the national government. The same hand was played out on the level of the states, where tax cuts to the wealthy and subsidies to the corporations made it impossible to fund the social programs, public services and education that the states were responsible for. Whether the states were headed by a Democrat or Republican, it made no difference. They were all dipping further into the pockets of ordinary people in order to increase the wealth of the bourgeoisie.

Yes, social programs have been severely decimated during the last three years, but the budgets which did the cutting received enough Democratic votes to give Bush the bi-partisan support he wanted. In 2003, for example, 58 Democrats who voted for Bush's budget more than compensated for the 38 Republicans who voted against. What is more significant, is that Bush's cuts in these programs came on top of cuts that were imposed during the Clinton years, whose cuts in turn came on top of cuts during the Reagan-Bush years, whose cuts came on top of the cuts instituted by Jimmy Carter. In his first term, Clinton cut appropriations to Medicare by $56bn and to Medicaid by $8bn. After campaigning for his second term by promising to save Medicare from a Republican onslaught, Clinton cut it by $115bn and cut Medicaid by an additional $25bn. But the single most vicious attack on social programs was Clinton's elimination of AFDC (welfare Aid for Dependent Children). This social program, the oldest one on the books, can be traced back to the home relief laws of the 1930s. The program's basic premise had been that if a family has no means of support, the state would provide a "safety net" until someone in the family could find a reasonable job or, in the case of a single parent, until the children were of an independent age. Before Clinton eliminated AFDC as an entitlement, replacing it with a temporary grant, the biggest attack on social programs had been the elimination of the 26-week unemployment extension and the virtual elimination of the 13-week extension in 1980 by a Democrat-controlled Congress working with Democrat President Jimmy Carter. Ironically, the Democratic Party today criticises Bush for not making the 13-week extension widely available - easy enough for the Democrats to say, but perhaps they should be picking that bone with themselves.

Clinton, just like Bush, justified cuts to social programs by talking about the need to reduce the government's deficit. Then, like Bush, he cut taxes to the corporations and to the wealthy, which further contributed to the deficit. In 1997, he cut capital gains taxes by nearly one third; 80% of this tax cut was estimated to go to the wealthiest 5% of the population.

Finally, take a look at the just-passed 2004 bill that reduces funding requirements for pension plans. It is nothing but a gift to the corporations and a guarantee that more workers will never see the pension they are counting on. This vicious attack was pushed through the Senate by none other than Ted Kennedy, working hand-in-hand with Republican Judd Gregg.

The AFL-CIO takes special note of the anti-union bias of the Bush administration. And, yes, it's certainly there. But the unions seem to have developed a convenient case of amnesia about what the Democrats did. Jimmy Carter, when he was in the White House, attempted to break the massive 1977-78 miners' strike - unsuccessfully, as it turned out, since the miners refused to back down in the face of his threats to jail the miners and bring troops into the mining areas to enforce a return to work. The Clinton administration attempted in 1994 to get the courts to uphold a $52m fine that had been levied against the same mineworkers' union after the Pittston strike, a fine so big it would have wiped out the UMW funds. Clinton intervened to block a nationwide railroad strike in 1996 and a pilots' strike at American Airlines in 1997. Also in 1997, the courts voided the earlier election of Teamster president Ron Carey - three days after he had led one of the few successful strikes by any union in decades - and this action was upheld by Clinton's attorney general. And when Richard Trumka and other officials of the AFL-CIO moved to offer some support to Carey, the Clinton Justice Department threatened to prosecute them using the RICO statutes against organised crime.

Finally, abortion - which is always considered to be one of the defining differences between Democrat and Republican. The first, and up till now most serious, attack on women's access to abortion was the Hyde Amendment to Medicaid, passed in 1976 by a Congress which the Democrats controlled by an almost two-to-one margin. This amendment banned the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortions, effectively restricting abortion access for low-paid working women, as well as women on welfare. No Democratic president since then has made any attempt to overturn the vote. Not Carter when he took office. Nor Clinton, who made a big deal about supporting abortion rights when he ran for office. When he had a large Democratic majority in Congress during his first two years in office, he made no effort to dump this restriction on poor women's right to control their own bodies.

Are the social programs in worse shape today? Yes, of course, just as the atmosphere is more reactionary. But that reflects the fact that Bush is building on what has been done before him by a long line of presidents, both Democrat and Republican.

"Part of the way with LBJ" = all the way

It is not the first time that the unions, the CP and others campaigned for the Democrats by recounting the sins of the Republicans. One of their most successful campaigns - if success can be measured in the election of a Democrat - was the 1964 election, which counterposed Lyndon B. Johnson to Barry Goldwater. Goldwater, it was said over and over again, would take the country back a hundred years. Above all, he was depicted as a war-monger who would ignore warnings about not going into a "land war" in Asia. The unions, the CP and most peace activists called for a vote for Johnson to prevent such a calamity. Even the nascent Students for a Democratic Society - which in later years was to greet Johnson with the cry, "Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?" - campaigned for Johnson in the 1964 election with the slogan, "part of the way with LBJ"! Their arguments, perhaps less sophisticated than Chomsky's, were nonetheless of the same sort: the difference between Democrats and Republicans might be very slight, but slight differences in critical situations can count for a lot!

Having created a riotous fear of what Goldwater might do, all these folks prepared the way for what Johnson DID do. Winning the election with 61% of the popular vote (the biggest margin ever), Johnson immediately took the nation into that "wider war in Asia" - and not just into Viet Nam, but into Laos and Cambodia - as well as into an invasion of the Dominican Republic in the Americas. Were all these people blind-sided because Johnson hid his true intentions until after the election? Hardly! Johnson had pushed through the infamous "Gulf of Tonkin" resolution in August 1964, almost three months before the election, the resolution he used to provide a cover for the vast stepping-up of the Viet Nam War that Kennedy had started. LBJ lied, claiming that US ships had been attacked by North Viet Nam, just as Bush lied, claiming that Saddam Hussein was holding weapons of mass destruction. Within days of his election, LBJ unleashed the vicious bombing on Hanoi and Haiphong.

LBJ was able to step up the war not because he lied to get the Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed, but because he could rest on the enormous mandate provided for him by all those folks who justified supporting him by demonising Goldwater. Johnson rested on this election to insist the population was in favour of the war. For a period of time, this helped to immobilise what had been a growing opposition to the war.

Ironically, after helping LBJ to his enormous 1964 electoral mandate, left-wing forces in the US could find no other explanation for the events that followed, than to personalise the war, blaming Johnson himself. With responsibility for the war now put squarely in Johnson's lap, the aim of many people in the anti-war movement was simply to get rid of Johnson - which first took the form of supporting Eugene McCarthy in the Democratic primaries (not all that dissimilar from Howard Dean in the way he raised the problem). When McCarthy's results in the early primaries showed that opposition to the war was much stronger than the media had supposed, Robert Kennedy entered the Democratic primaries, putting himself forward as the "credible" opponent of LBJ's war. Parts of the anti-war forces shifted to Kennedy, on the grounds that he "had the best chance" to unseat Johnson for the Democratic Party's nomination. (As the saying goes, there's nothing new under the sun - particularly, the sun of politics!) By the time of the California primary, the night of which saw Robert Kennedy assassinated, Kennedy had pushed McCarthy aside and was threatening the lead that Johnson's vice-president Hubert Humphrey had rolled up. If not for that assassination, Kennedy might have captured the election as yet another "anti-war" Democrat who takes the nation further into war.

Going to hell in Nader's handbasket

When Ralph Nader announced in February that he intended to run again this year, opposing both Bush and Kerry, he was met by a barrage of epithets. Writing in The Nation, Robert Scheer asked: "Does he [Nader] have no sense of accountability or shame?" The CP decried "Nader's disastrous decision to run in 2004." After berating Nader as "one of those querulous correspondents who dog the letters page of The Nation in their zeal to revive some dubious old dogma," Harold Myerson, editor of the social democratic magazine, The Prospect, predicted that Nader "could still have the power, in a very close election, to send the world straight to hell."

What a lot of foaming at the mouth, all just to justify the idea that Bush must be defeated, no matter what. Ironically, Nader subscribes to the same idea. When he announced his intention to run, Nader said that he would withdraw if he thought his campaign would enable Bush to win the White House again. At a March rally aimed at college students in Raleigh, North Carolina, he pledged, "We are going to focus on defeating George Bush and showing the Democrats, if they're smart enough to pick up on it, how to take apart George Bush."

All those people who style themselves as part of the "progressive forces" - including the leaders of the unions, the Communist Party, people like Chomsky and Michael Moore, or Nader himself - agree with Robert Scheer that "too much is at stake in this election" not to support the Democrats.

Speaking in the AFL-CIO meeting that endorsed Kerry, Gerald McEntee, president of AFSCME (state and municipal workers' union) and head of the AFL-CIO's political committee (and a very quiet Social Democrat), declared,"this is the most important election indeed in our lifetime."

In fact, there have been quite a few "most important elections in our lifetime" if we judge by the number of times that left-wing forces found excuses to support the Democrats. Not often, as they would insist. "Only once every four years," as Trotsky once replied to a CIO organizer who was trying to justify what the unions then presented as only occasional support for the Democrats, only for very "important elections."

That occasional support has continued for more than six decades now, election after election, with nothing to show for it, except a working class that has been deceived over and over again.

First as tragedy, next as farce...and then as.....

Bush may have raised almost as much money for his election campaign as the total raised by all the Democratic Party candidates put together, but this point can be turned on its head. That is, the Democrats taken as a whole have raised more than Bush. In other words, the Democratic Party also has access to funds from the bourgeoisie, all the more so, since in the 2004 primaries the unions have given very little so far, saving their money for "Anybody but Bush." Does the bourgeoisie give more to the Republicans than the Democrats? Yes, usually. But it gives to both. And Democrats have often been the biggest recipient - as was the case with Clinton in 1996 or Carter in 1976 or Johnson in 1964. The bourgeoisie needs - and has used - both parties. And it has especially used the Democrats when the population began to mobilise itself, to derail that mobilisation if possible, or at least to slow it down.

The Democratic Party has never answered the demands of the working population, because the workers voted for it or because working class organisations campaigned for it. In fact, this is one of the major complaints the unions themselves make. In 1994, the unions went so far as to sit out the election precisely because they had given Clinton their votes and he ignored everything they asked of him. The Democratic Party answered the claims of the population only when working people were mobilised to fight for their own demands - in the factories and other workplaces, in the streets, not in the ballot box. And that is true of the Republican party as well. In fact, the so-called "liberal" Supreme Court that handed down so many rulings like Brown vs Board of Education, or against government invasions of privacy, or repressive laws, was headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, known in his early days as a right-wing Republican. In the 1973 Supreme Court that issued Roe vs Wade, five Republicans and two Democrats voted in favour of legalising abortion; one Republican and one Democrat voted against. This doesn't mean that the Republicans can be depended on to defend individual rights, any more than Democrats can be, only that they too have been brought to acquiesce by social movements just as the Democrats were.

The two periods when a vast number of social programs were created, when democratic rights were expanded, when the working class improved its situation markedly, when the black population removed many of the most onerous restrictions it had faced - that is, the 1930s and the 1950s-60s - were periods marked by deep-rooted social movements. Those social movements were what forced the bourgeoisie to cede what it had not wanted to - and what neither party had been ready to give until then.

The Democrats have always tried to claim the credit for what the population achieved. But this blatant theft would have had no currency, if it had not been for union leaders and some leftists who spread the false claim that the Democrats are the "friend of labour."

If the working class is to prevent Bush - and the Democrats - from continuing down this disastrous road they are taking us today, it will only be by mobilising to fight for the demands of the working population, using the weapons of the working class: strikes, demonstrations, mobilisations. This is what people who take the side of the working class need to insist on today.