Adam Ash

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

US election: it's time for progressives in the Democratic Party to stand up and be counted

A Democratic Wing of the Democrats?
Liberal Doormats: Tread on Us
By LANCE SELFA/Counterpunch

The self-styled "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party"--the liberals who try to rally the Democratic base for every election--are always the good soldiers.

In a party increasingly consumed with offering a Republican-Lite agenda, they hold out hope that a Democratic Congress might investigate the Bush administration, enact national heath care or cut off funds for the occupation in Iraq. Even though party leaders disdain them, they toil on for the good of the party.

A case in point is the most recent attempt at an "inside-outside" strategy of changing the Democrats: the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA). Founded in 2004 and now claiming more than 85,000 members in 135 chapters, they take responsibility for winning resolutions in support of Bush's impeachment and for withdrawal from Iraq in state-level Democratic Parties.

In an October 17 message on the eve of congressional elections, PDA leader Tim Carpenter notes: "The strategic activism of Progressive Democrats of America gives me new hope that the Democratic Party and our country can be turned around."

Yet the fact is that the majority of liberal candidates the PDA backed in Democratic primaries lost to more conservative Democrats--many of them backed by the party establishment. Many of the winners--especially those, like Illinois candidate Tammy Duckworth, who were recruited and promoted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its pro-war leader Rep. Rahm Emanuel--are pro-war themselves.

This has put the PDA in the same position as previous formations like it: working for the election of Democrats who not only don't share their views on the war or health care, but are actually opposed to them. Yet in the interests of party unity and a broader outlook, the PDA has urged its members to work for these candidates.

One justification is that if the Democrats take the House, then safe-seat liberals will take over key congressional committees. "Imagine the investigative work that could be done on the Downing Street Memos and the Ohio voting irregularities and the steps that could and would be taken toward the censure of President Bush with these members managing the committees," Carpenter wrote.

"For this reason, PDA is urging its members and all progressives to donate, organize and vote Democratic in November. It may involve some holding of noses in some districts, but the stakes are high and the road ahead is long. Progressives must support all the Democratic nominees--including [Jane] Harman, [Al] Wynn and Duckworth as well as centrist Democrats who faced no progressive primary challenge--so we can demand and expect the support of centrist Democrats when our candidates win future primaries."

Fat chance of that. Just look at Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is favored to win re-election as an independent after he refused to accept his defeat in the Democratic primary to the moderate Iraq war critic Ned Lamont.

The problem doesn't just come from selfish "centrists." It's in the setup of politics itself, where liberal support for Democrats is always a one-way street.

A good recent example might be the case of PDA-endorsed Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is looking increasingly likely to become a senator from Ohio, defeating incumbent Republican Mike DeWine.

On September 17, Carpenter presented Brown with a "Backbone Campaign" award as part of PDA-supported effort to reward Democrats who stand up against special interests, the Republicans and the White House. In Brown's case, the PDA was commending him for leading opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

A few days later, Brown's backbone crumbled. He was one of only 34 House Democrats to vote for Bush's torture bill.

Of course, Brown was in a difficult position. What's opposing torture and supporting the right of habeus corpus against the possibility of facing a Republican attack-ad melding his face with Osama bin Laden's?

The PDA continues to back Brown, which goes to show once again that liberal groups working within the Democratic Party end up as the "gofers." They work the hardest at inspiring people to vote for an uninspiring party, and receive little in return. Yet they redouble their efforts to elect the Democrats.

As the socialist Hal Draper wrote in 1967 about the "lib-labs" (liberal-labor) of his day: "The Democrats have learned well that they have the lib-lab vote in their back pocket, and that therefore the forces to be appeased are those forces on the right ."

Don't the liberals ever get tired of being treated as doormats? How about calling another press conference and publicly rescinding the award to Brown? Now that would be a show of backbone.

(Lance Selfa writes for the Socialist Worker.)

2. Progress by Committee
Progressives won't get party leadership, but seniority brings them committee chairs
By Geov Parrish

The punditsphere is abuzz with speculation over what will happen in the 110th Congress next year, when and if Democrats take over one or both houses. Among liberals and progressives, it is an article of faith that winning on Nov. 7 is The Only Thing That Matters, and that the sea change likely in next week's election will by definition make everything better.

At the macro level, where headlines are made, this is beyond wishful thinking. There is absolutely nothing in the last six years of Democrats' performance as a minority party to suggest that once in control of one or both houses, the Democratic Party leadership will provide much of a useful counterweight, let alone impediment, to the inevitable Bush administration excesses of incompetence, corruption, lies, and Constitution-shredding. From Enron and tax cuts to the PATRIOT Act (twice), Iraq, NSA wiretapping, torture and secret prisons (and the abolition of habeas corpus), Medicare, Katrina relief, Supreme Court and lesser appointments, and far more, congressional Democrats have been damned near useless for six long years.

Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the prospective leaders of the Senate and House, are centrists who attained their positions by mastering the game of corporate fundraising. And most of the Senate hopefuls for the 2008 presidential race, starting with frontrunner Hillary Clinton and current media darling Barack Obama, and adding Biden, Bayh, and to a lesser extent Kerry, are legislative centrists. For all of them, not offending potential donors (and, oh yeah, voters) will be the bottom line for the next two years. And they'll need even more corporate cash than usual. Don't look for a whole lot of confrontation with, let alone impeachment of, the Executive Branch from those folks. Democrats are doing well this year as a result of public hostility to Republican rule and to Congress, not because of anything the Dems have stood for. In terms of public perceptions, that's not likely to much change in the next two years.

In other words, if Democrats sweep to victory next week, sure, progressives should celebrate -– it is what Dubya, two years ago, charmingly called an "accountability moment." Moreover, an unprecedented level of grassroots activism will have helped make it possible, always a good thing for a democracy in peril. But don't stop working on November 8. A lot of organizing will remain before the folks at the head of the Democratic Party pyramid pursue anything remotely resembling a progressive agenda.

That's the bad news in the prospective 110th Congress. The good news is at the next level down in the pyramid.

Progressives on Capitol Hill don't get party leadership positions these days. What they do get is seniority, especially in the House, where many have represented safe urban districts for decades. And this year, as never before, a remarkable number of congressional progressives are in line to become powerful committee chairs.

There are only a few progressives (or prospective new ones) in the Senate. I'd count Tom Harkin, Edward Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, Russ Feingold, and Patrick Leahy, along with Sherrod Brown and independent Bernie Sanders among the newcomers. On a good day, a handful of others will join them.

But if the Democrats should somehow edge into the Senate majority, look at what those five returning progressives would be doing. Four are in line to get committee chairs: Leahy the Judiciary Committee, Harkin at the Agriculture Committee, Kennedy the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Boxer, in all likelihood, the Environment Committee. The fifth, Feingold, is a probable presidential candidate and so will have elevated visibility.

That fledgling progressive caucus, especially Leahy at Judiciary, will carry influence all out of proportion to its numbers. But the real earthquake will be in the House, where all 21 committees are currently chaired by white men. When the Democrats (barring a miracle or Act Of Diebold) win the House, the Congressional Black Caucus will be instantly transformed from afterthought to power broker. And plenty of other progressives will be newly running things, too. Consider these probable new committee chairs: John Conyers (Judiciary); Alcee Hastings (Intelligence); Charlie Rangel (Ways and Means); David Obey (Appropriations); Henry Waxman (Government Reform); Bennie Thompson (Homeland Security); Louise McIntosh Slaughter (Rules); George Miller (Education); Barney Frank (Financial Services); Tom Lantos (International Relations); James Oberstar (Transportation); Juanita Millender-McDonald (House Administration); Nydia Velazquez (Small Business).

That's 13 of the 21 House committees. It's enough to make one giddy. And note that Conyers and Leahy control the two Judiciary Committees. While impeachment, however richly deserved, is a political non-starter (party leadership would never allow or support it), it's the committees that launch investigations and issue subpoenas. Despite the timidity of Pelosi and company, there's opportunity for hours' worth of "accountability moments" in the next two years should these far more progressive committee chairs start poking around.

At the broader legislative level, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi aren't especially inclined to prioritize legislation they believe will hurt the party's 2008 chances with donors (and, oh yeah, voters). But they can only work with the bills the congressional committees give them.

Buried in staff minutiae and far away from the headlines, the real good news as to how the 110th Congress will turn out is that a remarkable amount of the legislation to be considered might need to pass muster with progressive dealmakers before it ever reaches a vote.

That would be something worth celebrating.

3. The Polls Predict a Huge Republican Defeat. The People Aren't So Sure
The war is a disaster and Bush has become a political liability, but can the Democrats turn that into midterm triumph?
By Gary Younge

There are polls and there are people. Polls are relatively straightforward. When compiled reliably they are supposed to tell a story in digits. That story may be contradictory (people say they want more social services and less tax), but even the contradictions are clear. Polls provide the pillars for the mega-narratives - the broad brush strokes that draw the big picture.

People, on the other hand, are anything but straightforward. They dissemble, evade and lie - even to themselves. They confuse what they want to be true with what they know to be true. A person who does not contradict himself or herself is a bore, an ideologue or both. To fit people into a bigger picture, you must first change their shape.

With just one week to go before the midterm elections, the polls speak with one voice. The Republicans are heading for resounding defeat. A Pew research poll released late last week shows the Democrats with a double-digit lead among likely voters in the crucial competitive districts. The Democrats need 15 seats to retake the House of Representatives and six to win the Senate.

In the 131 House seats where John Kerry mustered only 40-49% of the vote two years ago, Democrats now have a lead of about 5%. They are ahead among men, whites, suburbanites, southerners and rural voters, all groups in which they trailed heavily in 2004. Independents now favour Democrats by 16%; four years ago it was just 3%.

The Republicans are favoured for dealing with terrorism, North Korea and immigration. On everything else, including Iraq, the economy, healthcare, morality and taxes, the Democrats are ahead. Even the Republicans' most faithful supporters are rapidly losing confidence in the administration's strategy on Iraq. Almost half of white evangelical Protestants believe the US should set a timetable for withdrawal - a 40% hike in just two months.

If the pollsters are correct, the US is set for a transformation on a scale somewhere between the Gingrich revolution of 1994, the last Republican legislative revival, and the Blair landslide of 1997. Republicans are about to be crushed by a series of meteorological metaphors - tsunamis, floods and hurricanes are poised to descend on the US electoral landscape with devastating effect.

But, to hear the people talk, you would think the country was in store for little more than grey skies with a chance of rain. Many voters in key districts in the midwest say they are undecided or just plain uninterested. Ask them what will swing it for them and they shrug. The big issues, they say, are Iraq and something else - usually healthcare, the economy or social security. Hurricane Katrina, corruption and terrorism never come up. They will answer questions about the election if you ask them, but it rarely seems to have been on their minds before you interrupted. Even big regional papers, such as the Chicago Tribune, are more focused on the races for local and state office (if indeed they are looking at politics at all) than the national scene. The issues people say are important are national but for the most part the voters insist on a local remedy. "I'll vote for the man not the party," they say. And which man do they like best? They're not sure.

Take Barbara, a "staunch Democrat", who lives in Chicago's suburbs, in one of the most hotly contested districts in the country, and voted for Bush in 2000. She is opposed to the war, but she is not yet sure whether she will vote for Democratic candidate Tammy Duckworth, the Iraq war veteran who lost her leg in the conflict. "I don't have any real feelings about her one way or another," she says. What will swing it for Barbara? "I don't know. Something will hit me."

The Democrats do seem more determined; those who voted for Bush in the last election are having second thoughts about both him and his party. But you come away with a sense that this could end up resembling Kerry's defeat in 2004 or John Major's victory in 1992.

None the less, two common strands do tie the people and the polls. First, the American public has concluded that the Iraq war has been an abject failure and wants the troops to come home. In 1999, George Bush Sr explained why he didn't move on to Baghdad after the first Gulf war. "Whose life would be on my hands as the commander-in-chief because I, unilaterally, went beyond international law, went beyond the stated mission and said, 'We're going to show our macho? We're going to be into Baghdad. We're going to be an occupying power - America in an Arab land - with no allies at our side.' It would have been disastrous."

This accurately describes his son's actions and, more importantly, the way they are commonly understood. The principle determinant of American support for any military intervention is not whether it is right or wrong but whether people think it will be successful.

For the past three years Bush has been telling anyone who would listen that the only option was to "stay the course". So long as people thought things were going well, they backed him. With US casualties rising and talk of civil war no longer taboo, the mood has soured. Last week he said that staying the course had never been his strategy. He refused to set a timetable but instead referred to "benchmarks". This may be one semantic illusion too many. They now fear that, having lied his way into it, he will lie his way out of it.

The second is that, largely as a result of the war, Bush has become a political liability. Attempts to pass this off as midterm blues simply do not wash. Six years into Clinton's presidency in 1998 - after the Lewinsky scandal had broken - the Democrats picked up five seats. In Reagan's sixth year, Republicans once again lost just five.

In 2004 Bush stood not for president but for commander-in-chief - the war leader. He called himself "the decider" - a man of principle and determination who checked his gut before he checked the polls. Unlike Kerry, the "flip-flopper", he would stand his ground when times were hard.

"The greatest thing about this man is he's steady," said comedian Stephen Colbert in a now famous parody before the White House correspondents' dinner in May. "You know where he stands. He believes the same thing on Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will."

With Bush's approval ratings stuck in the high 30s and low 40s since Katrina, Democrats run ads tarring their opponents by association with the president. One ad in Colorado shows Republican Rick O'Donnell standing alongside Bush, and warns that a vote for O'Donnell means "another vote for George Bush's agenda". Meanwhile, many Republicans are desperate to distance themselves from him. "George Bush is not a message I want to talk about," struggling Indiana congressman John Hostettler told the Chicago Tribune recently.

Quite what impact this will have on the elections on November 7 is not quite clear. Bush isn't on the ballot and the House of Representatives could not recall the troops even if it wanted to. The fact that Americans want to change course at home as well as abroad does not mean that they want to follow the Democratic course - even if they knew what it was. People are complicated. And the only poll that matters has not yet taken place.


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