After their victory in the 7 November elections, Democrat leaders in the US Congress seem to recognise that they have a mandate from voters to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. But even if they express resolve now, action won’t be easy: George Bush controls more levers of power than they do as legislators. Though they have the power of the purse, top Democrats in the House and Senate indicate that they are unwilling to cut off funds for the war. They fear being accused of endangering US soldiers. Moreover, Democrats are not unified on a single plan, and divisions are likely to remain over the key issue of whether to set a clear date for final withdrawal.
Anti-war groups are optimistic. ‘There is jubilation by the major groups organised against the war,’ says Judith LeBlanc, national co-chair of United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of 1,400 groups that has called for another demonstration against the war shortly after the new Congress convenes in January. ‘There are high enough expectations for the movement to exercise its muscle right away. There will be no honeymoon.’
Many pundits have portrayed the election as a victory for centrism, even conservatism, arguing that Republicans lost because they had become corrupt and abandoned conservative principles. But despite the views of some of the newly elected Democrats – such as supporting the gun lobby or opposing abortion – nearly all of them ran as sharp critics of the war.
Most also ran on a platform of what Americans call ‘economic populism’ – that is, government action to protect working- and middle-class living standards. Real income has been flat or declining for all but the top fifth of earners over the past six years, and job growth has been anaemic despite low official unemployment figures.
On the war and economic issues, voters were both repudiating Bush and the Republicans and tilting in a more progressive direction. In 2004, Bush was narrowly re-elected because in key states enough voters believed that he was preferable on issues of national security and fighting terrorism.
But the deteriorating course of the war in Iraq and the growing sense that the war is not being fought to increase security combined to undercut Bush’s credibility. This allowed voter unease over economic issues to come to the fore. The Democrats have a basic plan that they hope to push through quickly, including raising the minimum wage (now $5. 15 an hour and last raised a decade ago). The popularity of this move is demonstrated by the very strong referendum votes in six states to raise their own minimum wages above the federal level.
Democrats also plan to roll back oil company subsidies, pass new ethics legislation and change a Republican prescription drug plan for the elderly that actually prohibited the federal government from negotiating with pharmaceutical companies over the price of drugs.
There will be other clashes on economic issues, including the continuation of Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, new trade deals (which growing numbers of Democrats insist must include protections for labour and the environment) and the expansion of public health insurance to cover some of the 46 million Americans lacking it.
On Iraq, both the Senate Democrat leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and Michigan senator Carl Levin, who is expected to head the armed services committee, announced after the election that they would push for starting a ‘phased withdrawal’ of troops within the next four to six months. In the House, Jim McGovern from Massachusetts has proposed tying funding for Iraq (which has already cost $500 billion and for which the administration is prepared to request $160 billion for the coming year) to troop withdrawal and reconstruction.
The anti-war movement will be focused on withdrawing troops. Its credibility in making that demand has been bolstered by support from growing numbers of war veterans and a surprising group of 200 active duty soldiers in Iraq. But campaigners will also argue that the US should pay for war damage to Iraq, a proposition that may be much harder to sell to American voters.
Democrats are divided, and as a party they are vulnerable to political blackmail from senator Joe Lieberman. A pro-war Democrat who was defeated by an anti-war candidate in the primary election, Lieberman nevertheless won re-election in Connecticut as an independent with heavy Republican support. If Lieberman – still an ardent defender of the war – switched to the Republicans, as he has hinted he could consider, Democrats would lose control of the Senate.
With discontent about the war growing steadily, Democrats will need to deliver on getting the US out or risk repudiation by voters in two years time. But all the signs are that those same voters want progress on solving their own pocketbook issues – including health care, stagnant incomes and growing insecurity – as much as on ending the war.David Moburg writes for In These Times www.inthesetimes.com
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