May 24, 2013
Campaign 2006: The Issues, the Stakes, the Prospects
Posted on Sep 24, 2006
The choices are stark, the consequences are momentous, writes a public policy professor at UC Berkeley, who argues that the November elections will be the most significant in a generation.
Editor’s note: This essay previously ran in Mother Jones.
Scare the hell out of the American people.
That, in a nutshell, is the Republicans’ fall congressional campaign strategy. If you doubt it, consider the following: George W. Bush launched a propaganda offensive in the run-up to the 9/11 anniversary with a speech in which he called Islamic terrorists “successors to fascists, to Nazis, to communists and other totalitarians of the 20th century”; Donald Rumsfeld in turn likened administration critics [read Democrats] to those who appeased Nazi Germany in the 1930s; Dick Cheney, appearing on “Meet the Press,” accused opponents of the war of inviting more violence; Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, in August released a hyped report on the supposedly grave threat to U.S. national security posed by Iran, one strikingly similar to the hyped intelligence documents the administration used to build its case for war in Iraq.
I could go on, but you get the idea: The GOP is dusting off a strategy that’s worked wonders for it these past five years—one single-mindedly and cynically designed to increase public fear of terrorism.
No wonder the White House and congressional Republicans are so desperate and have gone on the offensive: They read the August opinion polls, which demonstrated that the American people had finally come to believe that Mr. Bush’s war of choice—which has killed nearly 2,700 Americans, wounded and maimed many more, cost our national treasury over $420 billion, killed or wounded tens of thousands of Iraqis, and seems to degenerate each day—might just be a mistake, and one to be corrected at the voting booth.
In fact, in the mid-August polls, just prior to the Bush administration’s spin offensive, 53% of Americans were convinced that “going to war was a mistake,” 62% believed that “events were going badly in Iraq,” and 58% “disapproved of [Bush’s] handling of the economy.”
Republicans will do almost anything to keep control of Congress. And no wonder. As long as they hold a thin majority in the House, they have the absolute power of chairing all committees, power they’ve used to freeze out the Democrats. The Republican chairs hire staff, set legislative priorities, issue subpoenas, decide on the issues and determine when to hold investigations, press conferences and hearings. The White House wants to keep it that way. Hoekstra, for example, would no more undertake a serious investigation of the White House’s manipulation of flawed intelligence since the run-up to the Iraq war than he would turn down a fat corporate campaign contribution.
Legislative oversight and accountability under GOP leadership has become a wink, a nod and a whitewash. Hoekstra happens to represent a safe district, but he knows only too well, as does the president, that if Republicans lose the House he will lose his chairmanship to a Democrat. There would be hearings and investigations of executive policies, just as there would be by other committees: Armed Services, Homeland Security, Financial Services, Government Reform, and Judiciary. This is downright scary to an administration that has turned executive secrecy and abuse of power into an art form, with the collusion of a coverup Congress.
Bush, the Republican leadership and Karl Rove are convinced that fear of terrorism is their best—indeed their only—trump card. It won the midyear elections for them in 2002 and the White House in 2004. They’re counting on using it to win again. What else do they have to run on? Not their handling of Hurricane Katrina, not healthcare, not education, not urban policy, not Social Security, not energy policy, not the environment, and certainly not jobs and economic security.
The Political Prospects
From now until Nov. 7, the American people can count on a high-stakes and brutal battle for control of Congress. This is undoubtedly the most important midterm election in a generation. If the Republicans win and maintain control of Congress, the nation will be faced with another two years of Bush’s policies. If the Democrats win the House, the Senate or both, these policies will come under serious scrutiny and some might well be reversed.
In the Senate, the Republicans now have a 55-44 advantage, with one Independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Though the odds favor the Republicans retaining control of the Senate—18 Republican-held seats, 15 Democratic-held seats and one open seat are up for reelection—Democrats have a long shot at gaining control. They have a good chance of winning seats in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Montana and Ohio. They then have to pick up two additional seats in tougher races in Tennessee, Virginia, Missouri and Arizona to gain a majority.
The House is where the Democrats have the best shot at winning. Democrats must pick up 15 additional seats to win control of the House, where all 435 seats are up for grabs. At present, the composition of the House is 231 Republicans, 201 Democrats, one Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, and two vacancies.
In the upcoming election, only about 40 House seats are in play. Because of recent redistricting, most incumbents have safe seats. If the election were held today, of the 40 [heavily] contested seats, the Democrats would likely pick up 28—mostly in the Northeast and Midwest—and the Republicans 12. That would give the Democrats a razor-thin two-vote majority. But it would be enough to change the dynamics of national politics and put the White House on the defensive.
It comes down to this: If the Democrats keep the election focused on the Iraq debacle and economic insecurity, they will win. If unforeseen events occur and the Republicans can frame the debate nationally around terror and/or the hot-button issue of immigration, the outcome could change.
For the past five and a half years, the president and his party have cooked up the ultimate recipe for keeping political power. A nation in a constant state of anxiety—over the threat of terrorism, or at war—is a nation off balance. And that insecurity is the perfect cover to divert public attention from the country’s serious domestic problems and the administration’s reactionary political agenda.
The “Bush doctrine” opens the door to a series of preemptive wars against “evil” regimes. The ostensible goal is to protect the United States and bring security, stability, safety and democracy to the citizens of Damascus, Tehran and Pyongyang, as the president claims to be doing in Baghdad and Kabul. Meanwhile, the administration and Republican congressional leaders show little or no concern for the security, stability and safety of the citizens of New Orleans, Los Angeles, New York, Cleveland or thousands of other cities and small towns across America, who are facing enormous economic and social difficulties.
Just as in “The Wizard of Oz,” when we finally get to see who is operating the smoke-puffing machine we find a consummate pitchman. In Bush’s case, the man behind the screen is a flag-waving, anti-terrorist smear and fear monger who labels his opponents anti-patriotic. Bush has done a clever job of manipulating the mass media, but in reality his smooth imagery and down-home personality are severely undermining America’s values. While he composes hymns to patriotism, individualism, Sunday piety, trickle-down economics, “staying the course” and family values, he is trying to gut every program providing for social, economic and environmental justice. America’s families need less pious rhetoric and more policies geared toward a healthy economy, secure jobs, decent healthcare, affordable housing, quality public education, renewable energy and a sustainable environment. Bush seems unable, or unwilling, to grasp that the government has an important leadership role in this. In fact, providing tax giveaways for the rich and for corporate America is the only policy that seems to energize Bush and the Republicans in Congress.
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