Socialist View - Spring 2004

Is Bush on the ropes?

US presidential race heats up

Although the US presidential election is still eight months away, the race for the White House is heating up already. The Democratic Party primaries (state by state elections where the main parties choose their nominees) rapidly winnowed a field of nine candidates until only John Kerry was left standing. Most primary voters said their main consideration was choosing the person who would have the best chance of beating George W. Bush. This phenomenon has become known as ABB - Anybody But Bush.

Tom Crean reports from New York

Bush's troubles

Bush is facing increasing difficulties. A few months ago, the capture of Saddam Hussein temporarily boosted his domestic popularity. But the continuing and worsening quagmire in Iraq, the jobless economic "recovery", the healthcare crisis and the ballooning federal deficit are again taking a toll on his poll ratings and putting him on the defensive.

A Time/CNN poll in early February found that only 44% thought Bush is "a leader you can trust" and a number of polls now show him neck and neck or trailing Kerry.

Probably the single most damaging development for Bush has been the report by David Kay who headed the US team searching for Saddam's "weapons of mass destruction". WMDs were the basis for Bush's claim that Iraq represented an immediate danger to the United States and, along with Saddam's alleged al-Qaeda links, formed the pretext for launching the war last March.

These claims may have had very little credibility internationally and have created no end of difficulties for Bush's main ally, Tony Blair. However, until recently, they were accepted at least by a section of the American population.

Kay not only found no WMDs but he declared that WMDs were unlikely ever to be found. This led to a spate of media commentary in the US about the "faulty intelligence" given to Bush.

Of course, the truth is that Bush and his team demanded that every scrap of information - no matter how flimsy - which supported the WMD line be gathered to justify a war they had already decided on and which had nothing to do with WMDs. As former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill confirmed in a recent book, Bush and the neo-conservatives were hell-bent on war with Iraq from the time they came into office. 9/11 just gave them the excuse.

In the wake of the Kay report, CIA chief George Tenet gave a public speech defending himself and then Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that "if he had known" the intelligence was "faulty" he might not have supported the war. This finally forced Bush to appear on "Meet the Press" and try to explain why it didn't matter that he had blatantly lied about the cause of war.

But even if Bush manages some temporary damage limitation, the war in Iraq which he had thought would be his ticket to a second term is increasingly a weight around his neck. Not only are young American soldiers being killed and maimed on a daily basis, but the plans to turn over nominal control of Iraq to a pliant regime are becoming less and less credible. Chaos is increasing not lessening and with it the real possibility of an ethnic civil war in Iraq with US troops caught in the middle.

In reality, Bush has yet to feel the full impact of the Kay report although opposition to the war is clearly spreading. For example, the Military Families Speak Out organization is receiving increasing support, printing letters from angry and distraught relatives of soldiers serving in Iraq on its website (

One letter from Rosemarie Dietz Slavenas, whose son Brian died along with 15 others when the Chinook helicopter he was flying crashed in Iraq on 2 November, 2003, is addressed to Bush and reads in part: "My beloved son Brian died for your red herring in the sand. He was an honorable, restrained, talented, caring man, and the world would be better off with him alive and well. He resigned his commission in the Illinois National Guard when assigned to duty in Iraq as a matter of conscience. He served nonetheless, and he bled for 1/2 hour in the desert sand before any help arrived, though the helicopter he was flying was only five minutes off the ground when it crashed, according to witnesses.

"Finders keepers, losers weepers. While we who have lost our loved ones have only tears to fill the empty space where love and laughter lived, you and your Halliburton cronies have found the oil wells and will undoubtedly keep your blood stained gains. Our sorrow, your gain."

The war at home

The Bush administration has been the most reactionary in living memory, and that's saying something. They have used 9/11 and the "war on terror" as a cover for a war at home against the rights and living standards of working people, immigrants and people of colour. Civil liberties have come under sustained attack. All this is part of a sustained drive by American capitalism to restore profitability in a world economy still glutted with overproduction.

The US today is a society with growing social divisions. One recent study shows that between 1973 and 2000 the average real income of the bottom 90% of US taxpayers fell by 7% while the income of the top 1% grew by 148%, the top 0.1% by 343% and the top 0.01% rose by an astronomical 599%! Many commentators now talk about the "Wal-Martization" of the workforce, as unionized and relatively well-paid manufacturing jobs are replaced by non-union service sector jobs with far lower pay and far fewer benefits.

But the increasing awareness of social polarization and immiseration while corporate greed goes unchecked are leading to a growing anger among working class people and many middle class people as well. This is compounded by the jobless recovery. For while there are many reports of economic growth this is clearly a recovery mainly for the rich. It has done nothing for the nine million unemployed and the millions of others who fear losing their jobs. Bush looks set to be the first president who will have overseen a net decline in jobs since Herbert Hoover at the start of the Great Depression.

On top of this, Bush's recently released budget proposal would create a record $521 billion federal deficit and, in an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the population, he didn't include any estimate for the cost of the continued occupation of Iraq! Meanwhile, the states are facing their worst fiscal crisis in over half a century, leading to massive cutbacks in social services right across the country.

At the end of the day, the economic situation could be an even greater factor in Bush's undoing than the quagmire in Iraq. But before one concludes that Bush is in freefall there are several factors that must be borne in mind. First of all, the media focus on the primaries has given a lot of airtime to anti-Bush arguments from a reinvigorated Democratic Party. Secondly, Bush has a $200 million war chest which he has barely started to use. The support the Republican Party is receiving from corporate America is still at record levels even if many in the ruling class are certainly having their doubts about Bush. Finally it's a long way to November and a lot can happen including further terrorist attacks.

The Democratic Primaries

The increasing social divisions the US and the growing opposition to the effects of globalized capitalism and imperialism, particularly among young people, has produced a widening political polarization. This can be traced back to the 1999 protest against the WTO in Seattle and Ralph Nader's presidential candidacy in 2000 during which hundreds of thousands came out to rallies around the country to hear him denounce the corporate domination of politics through the two party system. But the most significant indication of this polarization came in the mass antiwar protests at the end of 2002 and the start of 2003, especially on 15 February 2003 when perhaps as many as half a million marched in New York City while several hundred thousand marched in San Francisco.

The Democratic presidential candidate who most appealed to those opposed to the war was Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont. Dean, a self-described "fiscal conservative" was no radical and as he put it, "It's pathetic that I'm considered a left-wing liberal. It shows just how far to the right this country has lurched." However, his vocal opposition to the invasion of Iraq and his populist denunciation of Washington politicians in general and the leadership of the Democratic Party in particular, for a time put him in the position of frontrunner. He also made skillful use of the Internet to link up an enormous network of young activists and to raise over $40 million, the bulk of it in small donations.

But this was enough to provoke a ferocious response from the Democratic establishment and the media. The idea that the Democrats would have a candidate perceived as "left-wing" and anti-war and accountable in any shape or form to an activist base with real expectations of change was not acceptable to them. They seized upon some gaffes and then sought to portray Dean as unbalanced, "angry" and therefore not to be trusted with the office of the presidency. Within a month and a half, his campaign was destroyed.

Now the Democrats have a candidate whom the ruling class will be happy to support if Bush becomes a liability. Kerry comes from the same snobby East coast elite as Bush, is the wealthiest member of the "millionaires' club" that is the US Senate (he is worth $550 million!) and with nearly 20 years in Washington, he has an insider's knowledge of the running of the US empire.

Kerry denounces Bush's haste in going to war in Iraq without developing a wider international "coalition", i.e. without gaining more support from the other major imperialist powers. However, he voted for the authorization to go to war and, not only does he not advocate bringing the troops home, he advocates sending more. Along with the rest of the US ruling class, he is clear that whatever qualms they had at the time or retroactive criticisms of Bush's "unilateralism", now that they are committed there is no turning back. They want to pull out but only when "order" is restored and at all costs they are determined to avoid a repeat of their humiliating defeat in Vietnam 30 years ago.

Likewise, Kerry supported the Patriot Act passed in the wake of 9/11 which led to the indefinite detention without charge of thousands of Muslim and Middle Eastern immigrants. He has also been a firm supporter of the WTO and free trade deals like NAFTA though, under pressure, he now says he would "review" these agreements which have led to the loss of so many jobs in the US.

Fundamentally, Kerry would represent a return to the policies of Bill Clinton. But despite the way the Clinton years are described as some sort of "golden era" by liberals in the US and Europe, the truth is that Clinton paved the way for Bush. He initiated the biggest assault on poor people in the US over the past 30 years with the destruction of "welfare as we know it". His foreign policy was every bit as imperialist as his successor's; he bombed Belgrade and maintained the sanctions on Iraq for nearly a decade killing more than a million people.

The Nader Challenge

It is not true to say that there are no differences between the Democrats and the Republicans, especially since the Republicans have moved so far to the right and the Bush administration is at least partly a hostage of Christian fundamentalist supporters. Nevertheless, both parties clearly defend the interests of the US ruling class and its mission to maintain imperialist dominance abroad while keeping the working class "in its place" at home.

The Democrats just pretend to be "friends of labour" when it suits them. What is desperately needed is a new political party, based on the interests of the working class which will fight for the poor, African Americans, immigrants, women and all those oppressed by capitalism's rule inside the US.

Such a party does not yet exist and will clearly not be on the ballot in November. The key task now is to step up the movement against the occupation of Iraq and to link this with the need for struggle against layoffs and cutbacks. George Bush may lose in November but the only way to counteract the corporate agenda is through multi-faceted, mass social struggle.

In any case, social struggle is the only way working people in the US or anywhere in the world for that matter have ever won or defended real gains in the past. The willingness of millions of American workers to fight was vividly demonstrated during the recent five month long strike by grocery workers in Southern California against attacks on their health benefits and a two tier wage structure. Tragically the workers' sacrifice was squandered through disastrous misleadership and a terrible contract was imposed on the workers.

It is out of the struggles that will open up in the next period that the basis will be laid for the formation of a workers' party in the US. However, the recently announced candidacy of Ralph Nader represents a potentially significant challenge to the two party system, which began with his 2000 race. Nader is standing on a platform including a public works programme to create millions of jobs; a universal single payer healthcare system; opposing the occupation of Iraq; repealing the Patriot Act; for same-sex marriage rights; and repealing Bush's tax cuts for the rich.

As Socialist Alternative, which is affiliated to the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) and is the US sister organization of the Socialist Party, declared in a recent statement welcoming Nader's decision to stand: "Every Nader vote registers a protest and strikes a blow against the establishment and their two parties - the people who are responsible for the war in Iraq, the lack of healthcare, poverty, sexism, racism, and the millions rotting in hellholes called jails."

Predictably the left-liberal commentators have been driven into a frenzy by Nader's decision to stand, calling him an "egomaniac" and declaring that by taking votes away from Kerry he could give Bush a second term. But, as in 2000 with Al Gore, the Democrats biggest enemy is themselves. And saying that a challenge to the two party system should be deferred in this "special" election as some on the left do begs the question: when would the time be right for such a challenge? A recent poll shows Nader on 6%, a very healthy figure in the current political environment.

We are certainly not uncritical of Nader, a middle class populist. But if his campaign gives voice to the demand for bringing the troops home and to the emerging social struggles - like the fight for same-sex marriage rights - it will represent a step forward. We are actively participating in his campaign where we will raise the need for a new political party based on workers' interests and the necessity of revolutionary socialist change in the US.

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