Washington: the earth moves

Godfrey Hodgson
9 November 2006

At long last, the jig is up.

After six years in which he was confused but unblushingly arrogant, President George W Bush appeared before a press conference after what he himself called the "thumping" he had been given by the voters, still confused, but pathetically trying to "do nice".

He was trying to assure the reporters and the voters that after six years of ruthless partisanship at home and shameless bullying abroad, he intends to respond to the Republicans' comprehensive defeat in the mid-term elections by seeking consensus and governing from the middle.

As a pledge that he has turned over a new leaf, he sacked his defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, hours after saying he would keep him; and praised the gracious ways of the new speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, whom he and his myrmidons, throughout the campaign, portrayed as not far from treason.

So what happens now?

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)

"It ain't necessarily so: if Bush wins again"
(July 2006)

"The next big issue: inequality in America" (13 September 2006)

"American politics: corrosion by the dollar" (6 November 2006)

The next two years

For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that the Democrats might recapture the House of Representatives, but the Senate was beyond them. Conservative commentators said it wouldn't make any difference anyway: President Bush would stay the course, even if no one else wanted to, and anyway, what difference could the House make?

David Brooks, the New York Times's token neocon, even went on saying that nothing much had happened even after the result, and earned over a hundred angry blog posts within hours for his effrontery.

The truth is that the mid-term elections have been an event of very considerable significance. The Democrats have won the House by a bigger margin than anyone dared predict, and with the late declaration of a narrow win by Jim Webb in the closely-fought Virginia race, they have edged victory in the Senate. The Democrats, against the expectations of most pundits, will indeed control both houses of Congress.

So now it is time to put the natural satisfaction that the worst bullies to lead America in a century have been taught a lesson behind us, and to work out what the consequences of the 7 November vote are likely to be for the next two years.

Americans, it is being said, like "divided government"; they are comfortable, the suggestion is, with a situation where a majority in Congress cancels out the power of the White House. I suspect that is mere rationalisation of the fact that for a high proportion of the time since 1968, the party that controlled (or as Americans say "organised") Congress, did not have the White House.

I wonder how many citizens gave their vote to a Democratic candidate for the House with a mental reservation that they would vote for a Republican for the White House? On the contrary, to a very substantial extent - if the polls are to be believed - the vote was a massive, indignant and personal rejection of George W Bush. Indeed, with the puzzled incredulity of a wounded animal, it was plain from his press conference that Bush himself understands that.

So a key consequence of Tuesday's electoral rebellion is to make it much less likely that a Republican will win the presidency in 2008.

Much less likely - not impossible. John McCain, an authentic hero and a genuinely decent, patriotic conservative of the old school, emerges as the strongest Republican candidate. Two others whose names have been canvassed - George Allen, who ran such a bizarrely incompetent race for the Senate in Virginia, and Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, where a Democrat succeeds him as governor - have been damaged, though only the first has been effectively eliminated. But the voters will be watching closely to see whether the Democrats are constructive and can rise above partisan bitterness.

On the Democratic side, Senator Hillary Clinton's prospects must have been improved. She annihilated her opponent in New York, and two other talented Democrats, Eliot Spitzer (the nemesis of Wall Street), and Andrew Cuomo (son of Mario) did well too, sweeping to election as governor and attorney-general respectively of New York State.

Barack Obama, the exciting and brilliant African-American freshman senator from Illinois, whose book, The Audacity to Hope, has been a bestseller in these last weeks, has probably lost ground. The assiduity with which the most doggedly loyal conservative columnists have been promoting Obama already suggested they thought a black man would be easy to beat. But Hillary Clinton's performance in New York suggests that the country might be ready at last for a woman president.

In the meantime, the House of Representatives already has its first woman speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who takes over a job held by a long line of macho men, ending with the bull-like wrestling coach, Denny Hastert. Pelosi is feminine, but unmistakably tough.

Republicans have done their best to portray her as what is known in country clubs and corporate boardrooms as a "bomb-throwing" liberal. She for her part has not concealed her withering contempt for the president.

Again, the conventional wisdom has been that Democratic capture of the House would merely mean that nothing much would be done for two years. Given Pelosi's temperament, the frustration of the Democrats at the way they have been disrespected by the Republican leadership, and the mood of the country, I doubt that.

It is true that many of the newly-elected Democratic congressmen and women are "moderate", in the sense that they are concerned about the issues that are worrying middle-and working-class Americans, rather than with the wilder shores of political correctness. Some go so far as to back hunting.

But Pelosi is talking about populist economic issues: including increasing the pathetically low minimum wage, concentrating tax cuts on people with modest incomes instead of giving them all to those making over $200,000 a year (from whom the Bush administration hoped its largesse would "trickle down") and doing something to improve access to health care. And she is talking about action within one hundred hours, not one hundred days.

A new direction

The hardest policy area to predict is unquestionably Iraq. Pelosi herself is one of those who voted against the war, and her northern California base is strongly behind her on that. At the same time, the Democrats remain wary of allowing the Republicans to characterise them as unpatriotic.

Events, however, may offer the congressional Democrats a way out of this trap. The elections made it plain that many, many patriotic and centrist Americans detest the war. They are horrified by its casualties, American and Iraqi, and the appalling damage it has done to America's reputation in the world.

Many, perhaps most, senior military officers are deeply unhappy about how the war and its aftermath have gone. Armed-services newspapers have openly criticised the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, and they have been rewarded with Rumsfeld's scalp. His position was likely to become intolerable if the second, Anfal trial of Saddam Hussein revealed more detail about Rumsfeld's role in arming Saddam in the first place.

Before the elections, the president set up the Iraq Study Group, led by his father's foreign policy adviser and close friend, former secretary of state, James A Baker. This was perhaps seen as a way of kicking the Iraq issue into touch until after November. But things may have gone beyond that now. Baker is thought to be interested in some sort of federal government in Iraq, with substantial autonomy for Kurds, Shi'a and Sunni.

Such an arrangement would not be easy to achieve. It would further embitter the Sunni, privileged under Saddam Hussein and now further goaded by his impending execution. Arrangements would have to be made to distribute oil revenue, as well as to prevent ethnic violence on the scale of post-partition India. But it looks as though, in spite of his stubbornness or loyalty, call it what you will, President Bush will have to find a way of cutting his and everyone else's losses in Iraq.

For the time being, the president continues to indulge his considerable pride. He came up with a tricky formula in his press conference. He wants to pull back American troops from Iraq - but only after "victory". So what would that be?

After his re-election in 2004, Bush said he had increased his political capital, and he intended to spend it. He frittered away some of it on an ill-conceived scheme for "reforming" (read privatising) America's social-security pension system. He lost more as a result of his buffoonish mistake at the time of the Katrina hurricane. Thousands of black people were starving in a football stadium, and Bush was filmed saying to the official responsible - whose credential for the job was his past as a fashionable horseman in Houston society - that he had done "a heck of a good job". Iraq drained his assets like a mortgage. Now he is politically bankrupt.

The next question is whether, like a spoiled heir, he has squandered the estate Republican conservatives have piled up with so much faith and so much hard work since the victories of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Newt Gingrich in 1994. That now depends principally on the Democrats, and in particular on two talented if at times refractory women, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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