It ain’t necessarily so: if Bush wins again

Godfrey Hodgson
30 July 2006

To a casual reader of the great metropolitan newspapers, George W Bush's political project is in ruins. The economy is fading towards disappointment, and the president has had to abandon the favourite domestic projects of his second term, especially tax cuts for the rich and the "reform" – that is, as the word is now used, the privatisation – of the social security pension system.

The president is now at odds with his own party on immigration and other issues, including his high-handed definition of his own powers as "commander-in-chief". And the Republican Party, starting with some of the key figures in the creation of the conservative ascendancy (Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed and their friend Jack Abramoff), is mired in scandal.

As for foreign affairs, his project for defeating the "axis of evil", defined in the crucial State of the Union speech of January 2002 as comprising North Korea, Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, is a mess. The closer a "rogue state" is to acquiring nuclear weapons, it would seem, the less opposition it will have to fear from Washington.

Iraq, with no weapons of mass destruction, has been pulverised. Iran, with an ongoing programme, is demonised but cannot be effectively pressured. North Korea, run by a crazy communist dictator with an existing nuclear arsenal and the missiles to deliver weapons over long distances, is left alone. The casualties and the chaos, the shame over American torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantànamo, murders by American troops and rip-offs by American companies in Iraq, are beginning to sink into public consciousness.

The neo-conservative dream of sweeping away the existing principalities and powers across the Muslim world and replacing them with democracy as understood by the American Enterprise Institute has failed. Instead, once more there is unconditional American support for an Israeli response to Hizbollah's aggression that is seen, everywhere except in Washington and London, as hideously disproportionate and is widely suspected of being planned in advance to take advantage of any pretext offered by the Islamic resistance.

Just over a month from now, the long American summer vacation will end. The political guns will open up again ahead of the mid-term elections in November 2006. Can we expect then, as many political experts have predicted, that the arrogance and incompetence of the Bush administration will be punished at the polls? Will the Republicans lose control of either or both of the houses of Congress, with the inevitably dire consequences for their prospects in the 2008 presidential election?

It ain't necessarily so.

Also by Godfrey Hodgson in openDemocracy on American politics:

"Can America go modest?"
(October 2001)

"The Senate’s filibuster deal: only a truce in the culture wars"
(May 2005)

"American media in the firing-line" (June 2005)

"Gimme five! US Republicans’ amoral minority" (June 2005)

"After Katrina, a government adrift" (September 2005)

"Oil and American politics" (October 2005)

"The death of American politics" (October 2005)

"The Democrats’ dilemma"
(November 2005)

"The mandate of heaven and the tipping-point" (December 2005)

"The US Democrats' opportunity: can they take it? " (June 2006)

"'Yo, Blair'" (July 2006)

A change in the weather

In the last few weeks, the political outlook has perceptibly changed, and in favour of the Republicans. The change is not, to be sure, definitive, and it is certainly not owed to the fact that the administration and its party backers have experienced any miraculous conversion. Their strategy in the middle east remains delusional; their domestic economic policy, based on tax cuts for the wealthy and "trickle down" to the poor, continues to be socially regressive.

Yet, for all that, the Democrats have so far utterly failed to take advantage of the weakest president and the most clueless administration in living memory, while the president's men are preparing a political campaign that may just succeed.

To understand why this is so, it is necessary to go back and analyse George W Bush's campaigns in 2000 and especially in 2004. In both cases, the president's political Svengali, Karl Rove, had a simple plan. Conservative pundits and publicists had already established that "liberal" was a synonym for all that was feared and despised by any decent loyal Americans. Rove would attempt to exploit the label, and add to it the smear that Democrats were "unpatriotic" too.

That was the nub of the Republican response to the al-Qaida attacks on 11 September 2001. And it worked. As the months turned into years, the Democrats allowed themselves to be intimidated. No leading Democrat in Congress dared to oppose the administration's homeland-security plans, now exposed as the most shameless pork-barrel politics since the Ulysses S Grant administration (1869-77): congressmen have sucked resources away from metropolitan centres like New York, Chicago and Washington, and redistributed them to protect fast-food stands and roadside zoos in places like Frog Pond, Georgia.

The intimidation was even more effective in protecting the administration's plans for war on Iraq. The once fearsome investigative zeal of the Washington Post, the New York Times and their competitors swallowed whole the administration's shifting pretexts for invading Iraq. The Democrats in Congress felt they must fall in behind the fife and drum of Republican patriotism. One reason why governors and former governors (Mark Warner of Virginia, Tom Vilsack of Iowa) are well placed for the Democratic nomination for 2008 is that the senators (Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards) all voted for the war in Iraq. Hillary Clinton is the frontrunner in spite of that vote, but it has left her bitterly resented by the liberal wing of the party, whose activism will matter when election time comes round.

Now President Bush and Karl Rove propose to repeat the trick. The fate of the attempt by Lebanese-American congressmen to protect their ancestral homeland is illustrative. Four members of Congress are of Lebanese ancestry. None was so naive as to propose direct opposition to Israel's air strikes on Lebanon's infrastructure and civilian population. The most they thought they might achieve was to insert language into the congressional resolution backing Israel that would call on Israel's response to Hizbollah's attacks to be "proportional". Their efforts were utterly futile.

Support for Israel, whatever Israeli governments may do, is instinctive, automatic, overwhelming. It has little to do with the "Jewish lobby" that obsesses European commentators. It springs from many sources: from fundamentalist Christian identification with the Old Testament story; from that interpretation of history that is sometimes called "the Americanisation of the Holocaust" (the idea that the United States saved a remnant of European Jews in 1945 and established them in the Holy Land); and from a generic sense, propagated by conservative media, that Israel – unlike such false friends as the Europeans – is a staunch ally of the United States and a true democracy.

Rove and his helpers were already finding it easy to rebrand any criticism of American handling of Iraq as "cut and run". Now the new crisis across the middle east, one in which Israel is seen as the righteous sword of democracy, slaying the dragons of Shi'a militancy from Tyre to Tehran, is once more putting the Democrats on the spot. How can they criticise the administration's policy without seeming to confirm the Republican charge that they are unpatriotic?

This is not just a cunning plot on the part of Bush and Rove. They are working in this respect with the grain of American public opinion, long prepared to give Israel all but uncritical support.

Nor does it mean that the Republicans will inevitably beat back Democratic attempts to win control of the Senate and the House of Representatives this November. Many expert observers think the Democrats can win in at least one of the two houses. Some, like Thomas E Mann of the Brookings Institution, go so far as to predict a decisive shift back to the Democrats.

All that has to be said by way of warning at this moment is that the disastrous failures of Republican policy and Republican management will not turn into Democratic victory at the polls unless the Democrats show more skill, more unity and more civic courage than they have shown over the past five years.

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