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After the fall: George W Bush in trouble

About the author
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).

The American calamity of the presidential election of 2 November 2004 triggered a predictable sequence of mourning, rage, despair, and inertia on the American left. Six months on, oppositional energies are bubbling, though perplexity also endures.

About mourning, rage, despair and inertia, nothing in particular need be said. Visible gloom appeared like overnight wrinkles upon blue, Democratic, state faces. As days stretched into weeks, the stunned legions of John Kerry seemed to speak only in mutters and murmurs. Theories of the defeat circulated, though none carried more than limited conviction. For months, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, America’s prime venue for truth-telling satire, surrendered its edge. Even activists’ declarations of interest in taking up residence in politically more congenial climes – Canada, Britain, anywhere – seemed to lose energy as they caromed about. Mourners mournfully echoed Joe Hill’s injunction, “Don’t mourn, organise!” as they floundered, disorganised.

But mourning became tedious and the more promising sequel of resolve has been more interesting. Many, probably most, of the thousands of activists who had buzzed into swing states in the weeks leading up to election day have gone back to life as usual; but a perhaps surprising number flexed their electronic muscles and signed on for new efforts. now claims 3 million online supporters, and now feels confident enough to start to charge those who wish to mobilise “meetups”. The defeated John Kerry claims 3 million of his own – presumably overlapping. Online mobilisation continues for lobbying efforts, and money pours in.

The debate about policies is predictable and still inconclusive. Should Democrats speak in the language of the faithful? (The balance of opinion, I would guess, is no, though the point is heatedly contested.) Should they trim back their opposition to curbs on abortion in favor of programmes that would make it “safe, legal, and rare,” in Bill Clinton’s phrase? (The balance of opinion is yes, though again, many devils scamper amid the details.) As retroactive support for the Iraq war dwindles below 50%, what should the Democrats say about the occupation, and about foreign policy generally? (Not much, says the going consensus. An isolated, left-wing fringe continues to press for rapid withdrawal.)

Meanwhile, a small but hardy band of activists continues to pursue the theory that voting machines were rigged for Bush, thus accounting for the fact that the tabulated results were systematically more pro-Bush than the usually reliable exit polls. There remain tantalising questions – casually dismissed by the media – about how such a pattern might have been possible, though to claim a conspiracy of multi-state fraud involving several different vote-tallying devices without any evidence is, to say the least, premature.

More consensual is infrastructural work to make the Democrats a continuing, working party rather than merely an intermittent fund-raising machine. Howard Dean, the anti-war darling of 2004, is one who steers clear of withdrawal talk – and is criticised for this by the anti-war stalwart (and candidate for the Democratic nomination), Representative Dennis Kucinich.

Dean matters now because party cadres elected him head of the Democratic National Committee on the strength of his promise to firm up the Democrats’ soggy infrastructure. By the time the Democrats’ in-house ballot came round, even his opponents were vying on Dean’s chosen ground, disputing who would do better at what all agreed was a crying need. Upon winning election, Dean elected to allocate funds to permit every state Democratic organisation to hire two full-time staffers – which may not seem like much until one considers that, before and throughout 2004, many states (including decisive Ohio) had none on their payrolls.

Blocking the victors’ parade

For the November winner, surprises ensued, many of them unpleasant. As Godfrey Hodgson writes on openDemocracy, President George W Bush claimed a mighty mandate and launched full-bore into a crusade to dismantle social security. Most likely this is a case of ideology trumping political calculation. The Republicans flogged their horses and ran pell-mell. They are now at risk of riding over a cliff. At the same time, the Congressional Democrats dug deep into themselves and found backbone.

On social security, the bedrock of the teetering American welfare state, counter-evidence, as usual, has not fazed Bush. The harder he fights for “the ownership society,” code for privatisation, the more opposition he arouses, for he reminds the country of values – not his, but its. He has brought to the surface a universalism that for a long time has not spoken its name. Dispatching himself to the hinterland for a road show of rallies to which opponents were not permitted entry, he watched, helpless, as his poll numbers sank below 50% and his vague social security schemes into the 25% range. At this writing, Democrats have hung tough. Local constituents are keeping them honest. Even the young, whom Bush hoped to play against their grandparents, are not falling in line.

As the White House fumbled its beggar-thy-neighbour economic initiative, Republican “movement conservatives” played to what they expected would be their strength – the culture war. Having secured a martyr, the long brain-damaged Floridian Terri Schiavo, they thought to arouse their social conservative base. With the media endlessly looping old video of the awfully damaged Schiavo apparently laughing – while she was, as neurologists testified and courts over a period of years confirmed, nonfunctional – the Republican culture warriors felt, as the buzzword goes, empowered.

Congress roused itself to intervene in the state courts. Florida governor, Jeb Bush, punched his ticket to ride at the head of the crusade. His brother, the president, bestirred himself to return from the ranch on a Sunday to grandstand, ingratiating himself to movement conservatives.

All was for naught. Public opinion rebelled. Even evangelicals were far from convinced that Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was a matter of national urgency. The federal courts declined to supersede local authorities. While bands of fundamentalist fanatics clustered and ranted outside the hospice where she had been confined for years, Terri Schiavo died.

Not that the Republican culture war died along with her. As the Democrats threatened to filibuster against the most savage of right-wing judicial nominees, the far right of the party mobilised to ban the filibuster and charge opponents with – religious bigotry. It is still too early to say whether they’ve overreached. The Republicans still flirt with changing the Senate rules to ban what they once called “the nuclear option.” (Fearing this sounds too, well, muscular, or is it genocidal, they now, in full Orwellian voice, attempt to attribute the phrase to the Democrats while renaming their tactic “the constitutional option.”)

The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, signed on to a fundamentalist TV broadcast cursing the Democrats as people without faith. This flattered the Republicans fanatical base but did not improve their longer-run prospects. At last the liberal churches, the counterweight to the religious right, have roused themselves. The media are now paying more attention to them than before.

A Senate Republican conscience caucus has also burst into the open. The occasion: the bitter fight in the Senate foreign relations committee over the confirmation of the blustering John Bolton as United Nations ambassador. What gives these Republicans pause, as they jockey to appeal to future moderate voters, is not so much Bolton’s bellicose policies as his style.

By all accounts he is a bulldozer incarnate, or to shift the metaphor, the state department’s loose cannon – resisting intelligence that defied his dogmas in Iraq, North Korea, and elsewhere, going over their heads to punish those who failed to cherry-pick evidence as he liked; and if that weren’t enough, brow-beating a goodly number of public officials who get in his way. “A kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy,” said the state department’s former intelligence chief, Carl Ford – himself a hidebound conservative. No less an eminence than Colin Powell is said to be orchestrating the campaign against Bolton in person.

If one Republican vote turns during the committee hearings, Bolton’s nomination will fall – and George Bush’s power over his own party will be sliding down a slippery slope. Democrats will pop the corks and, for a moment at least, look like winners. They are holding together better than the Republicans at this point. On the other hand, if Bush can corral his party’s grumblers, the Democrats will lose their current momentum and have to scheme mightily how to regain it.

In the meantime, House majority leader Tom DeLay writhes under ethics charges. The Republicans are learning that the party that controls every branch of government has more flanks available for scandal. With the Washington Post leading the charge of the watchdogs, hitherto compliant media are sniffing for blood in the water.

In short, the Bush mantra of “mandate” is already defunct. At the least, the Democrats seem to have gotten over their brooding. They may not know how to win political power but still, they may be winning their souls back by learning to block the victors’ parade.

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