By Arthur Blaustein
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.
Republicans running for the House and Senate in marginal districts and swing states have a problem. They’re just like Tony Blair, fatally weakened in Britain and derided in Europe as “Bush’s poodle” for rolling over for the U.S. president’s every policy demand. Republicans in Congress, however much they may try now to distance themselves from a deeply unpopular president, are in trouble for having stood on their hind legs and jumped through hoops every time the White House has fed them a new policy biscuit. Thus, the policies of George Bush and his administration are —and well should be—the defining issue of this campaign.
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.
At present, an air of suspended belief hangs over the radical changes of the past five and a half years. That is because Bush’s economic policy has been obscured by the events of Sept. 11, the nation’s focus on terrorist alerts—which seem to occur whenever Bush takes a nose dive in the polls—and the Iraq war. But layoffs, shutdowns, cutbacks, outsourcing, gas prices, local tax hikes and reduced paychecks are taking a huge toll. Bush’s economic policy, which in turn determines social policy, is much like the iceberg waiting in the path of a steaming Titanic.
Bush does not seem to understand that, while it is not a sin to be born to privilege, it is a sin to spend your life defending it. John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt understood that. They knew the narrowness that privilege can breed. This administration, despite its early pledges of “compassionate conservatism,” has in fact adopted policies that amount to a war against the poor and the middle class.
The Bush tax and budget cuts were not made in order to jump-start the economy or balance the budget; they were simply massive cash transfers. Social programs are being slashed to pay for the war in Iraq, tax giveaways for the wealthy, and new defense contracts for arms makers who just happen to be big Republican campaign contributors.
Moreover, the administration has not provided the American people with a strategic vision as to how the war in Iraq and this excessive and bloated arms buildup fit into our larger defense, anti-terrorist and foreign policy. Is it in the national interest to relegate our most precious assets—our human, natural and financial resources—to the junk pile? Is it in the national interest to throw more lives and money into the quagmire in Iraq? To increase the pace of an arms race where overkill has long been achieved and is useless, militarily, in land wars?
Thomas Jefferson warned us that we could be free or ignorant, but not both. We have not taken that warning to heart. We have not had a serious national debate about the Bush administration’s policies, because the Republican leadership in Congress has engaged in a massive coverup and the mass media have treated politics—as well as economic and social policy—as entertainment: a combination of hype and palliative. The moral, political and economic life of this country has suffered. As a consequence, we have lost our moral compass, as well as our intuitive sense of what is significant in both our national and public institutions.
Foreign Policy: The Iraq War and National Security
Since Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush want to invoke history, let’s look at real-world history, instead of the mindless drivel they are peddling. The Bush spin-meisters desperately want to undermine the simple truth that most Democrats understand history and complexity, particularly in regard to the most important decision a president can make: that of taking our country to war, with all its drastic consequences in terms of human lives and the expenditure of national treasure.
Bush does not seem to understand that those who do not learn from history are condemned to make the same mistakes. Both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, in leading the victorious WWII allies in the war against fascism, understood the suffering, the human costs and the scourge of war. (Note that Bush kicked off his propaganda offensive with a speech at an American Legion convention. One wonders if there were any Vietnam vets in the audience who thought to themselves, “Oh yeah, this guy has a lot of experience in fighting for freedom. While I was getting shot at and dragging my sorry ass through the muck and mire of Vietnam jungles, he was doing drugs, getting drunk, and practicing his golf swing at Houston country clubs. Ditto for that freedom-fighting draft-dodger Cheney.”) Roosevelt and Churchill understood only too well the need for international cooperation, both diplomatic and military. They understood the critical need for the exchange of intelligence and multinational action by and among traditional allies. They understood the need for strategic alliances that every single president since then, Republican and Democrat, has understood, with the glaring exception of Bush. That’s why he is dangerous and why we need a Democratic Congress to hold him accountable.
Roosevelt, before his death, was quite clear. He said that the United Nations was the place to go not to end wars but to end the beginnings of wars. And Churchill was just as explicit when he warned us, “The United Nations is an imperfect institution that is a reflection of an imperfect world. Its purpose is not to lead us into an ascent to heaven but to prevent us from going into a descent to hell.” Those words are just as true and prescient today as they were in the aftermath of WWII. The Democrats understand what they mean. Bush either isn’t interested or he’s too arrogant to grasp their meaning.
Saddam Hussein was a despicable tyrant, but overthrowing him and invading Iraq did not lessen the threat of terror; it increased it. It did not strengthen American military capability; it weakened it. It did not make Americans at home or abroad safer; it had the opposite effect of increasing recruitment and support for Al Qaeda and other anti-American militant groups throughout the world. Invading Iraq did not increase international cooperation for anti-terrorist efforts or the respect for America’s diplomatic leadership that is indispensable to the war on terror; it diminished them.
For five and a half years, I have listened carefully to the president and his chief advisers. All of it has reminded me of a passage in “The Heart of Darkness.” Joseph Conrad put it this way: “Their talk was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight ... in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world.”
Conrad’s words capture the political machinations of the Bush administration’s years in Washington. They reflect the mood and the moral nullity of the reactionary enterprise that seeks to tear apart the public good at home and to promote the neoconservative fantasy of world domination that led us into a risky and tragic preemptive war in Iraq. The Bush administration just doesn’t get it. No country can sustain itself, much less grow, on a political fare of one-liners, secrecy, rerun ideas, deliberate distortions, arrogance, paranoia and official policy pronouncements borrowed from Orwell’s “1984”—where recession is recovery, war is peace, and a social policy based on aggressive hostility is compassion.
Finally, let me leave you with 25 reasons as to why this election is important and why you should get involved. They are:
2. Woman’s choice
3. Global warming
4. Public education
5. Civil liberties
6. Decent jobs at livable wages
7. Affordable housing
8. National health insurance
9. Torture and human rights abuse
10. Separation of church and state
11. Soaring federal deficits
12. The Supreme Court and federal judges
13. Increase in poverty and homelessness
14. Assault weapons back on the street
15. Social Security
16. Consumer protection
17. Huge national debt
18. Preemptive wars and national security
19. Mercury and acid rain
20. Disaster preparedness and Hurricane Katrina
21. Maldistribution of wealth
22. Resumption of nuclear testing
23. Homeland security—ports, mass transit and chemical plants
24. Renewable energy and gas prices
25. Pervasive corruption, cronyism, manipulation and incompetence
You could probably add a number of reasons of your own. What’s of paramount importance, though, is that the issues are basic, the choices are stark, the stakes are high and the consequences could be devastating.
It’s your country.
Arthur I. Blaustein is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches community development, public policy and politics. His most recent books are “Make a Difference: America’s Guide to Volunteering and Community Service” and “The American Promise: Justice and Opportunity.” He was on the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Bill Clinton and was chair of the President’s National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity under Jimmy Carter.