The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

United States:
A Partial Set-Back for the Republicans, a Complete Set-Up for the Working Class

Nov 10, 1996

With 379 electoral college votes, to only 159 for Republican Bob Dole, Democrat Bill Clinton won a bigger election victory than he did four years ago.

Clinton’s seemingly overwhelming victory did not, however, give his party undisputed control of the government. The Republicans increased by two their control of the Senate, where only a third of the seats were up for election; their margin now stands at 55 to 45. They also continued their control over the House of Representatives, although they suffered a net loss of 10 seats; their new margin there is 226 to 207, with two independents.

Whatever else may be said about this election, the fact remains that the voting turn-out once again went down. According to the first estimates, it was somewhere between 48 and 49% of the voting age population. After having gone up in 1992, with the novelty of Perot’s first campaign, the turn-out has again resumed its downward trend, this time to its lowest point since 1924, when it stood at 44%. (In the 1924 election, the year women first had the right to vote, most women didn’t vote, coming under pressures from the family and large parts of society not to do so.) From 1960, when it stood at 63%, up to today, the trend line of the turn-out has continued to point downward.

As usual, there was an absolute correlation between turnout and income: the higher the income, the more likely that people voted. In other words, the more privileged layers of society—the salaried professionals, the wealthier part of the petty-bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie—continued to vote more than do the working people. The poor vote least of all.

Who Do They Trust? Neither One!

For the sixth time since 1972, the party which holds the presidency finds itself unable to control the congress. This has led a number of commentators to postulate that the American electorate split their tickets to prevent either party from really governing. Put more simply—the American people don’t seem to trust their politicians.

There are probably more than a few grains of truth in that. Even while the polls continued to show that Clinton was holding a large margin over Dole, they also showed that the majority of the population "distrusted" him.

But there is nothing in the actual vote that shows that the electorate made any real effort to split its vote. In fact, there was less splitting of the Democratic ticket than in any of the previous five elections. Only 16% of those who voted for a Democratic congressional candidate gave their vote to someone other than Clinton. As far as the popular vote was concerned, the results were almost identical: Clinton got 49% of the vote for president, while Democratic House of Representatives candidates gained 50%. The difference in who was elected has much more to do with how votes are calculated for the Electoral College which formally elects the president, and how districts are drawn for the House of Representatives, than it does with ticket splitting.

(All these figures come from exit polls taken by the consolidated polling service of the main news services. Obviously, these polls have their limits. Nonetheless, they give some idea of overall trends.)

Other commentators believed that a significant part of the electorate doesn’t want to interfere with the status quo. According to this reasoning, people are content with their current situation, and they don’t want to upset the applecart. Thus, no one changed their vote.

In reality, a certain number of people did change their vote. More important, they reversed their views about Clinton during the course of the last term.

"The Republicans Want to Cut Medicare! Shame!"

Two years ago, immediately after the Congressional elections which gave the Republicans control over both the U.S. Senate and the House for the first time in 42 years, it seemed as though Clinton didn’t stand a snowman’s chance in hell of getting reelected. Not only had the Republicans won a rout in the House, poll after poll showed the low regard in which Clinton was held. The vote for the Republicans was widely interpreted as a vote against Clinton, who wasn’t up for re-election.

Newt Gingrich’s "radical Republicans" spent the months following their spectacular victory proclaiming their intention to cut every existing social program. Even Medicare and Social Security were not sacrosanct.

There was the opening, and Clinton rushed in to take it. In mid-August of last year, his re-election team ran some TV spots, denouncing the Republicans for their intention to cut Medicare. "The Republicans are wrong to want to cut Medicare benefits. And President Clinton is right to protect Medicare, right to defend our decision as a nation to do what is moral, good and right by our elderly." So went the commercial. All throughout the fall, the Democrats repeated it, and several others just like it, spending more than one million dollars every single week on these ads.

The Republicans finished the job for Clinton. In October 1995, Dole told an audience that he had voted against Medicare at its inception. On the very same day, House Speaker Newt Gingrich proclaimed to another audience that he expected to see the agency that administers Medicare "wither on the vine."

By December when Clinton vetoed another budget which the Republicans had pushed through, proclaiming that he regretted having to tie up the government but that he was determined to "protect" Medicare, the polls had swung almost diametrically around. Newt Gingrich was fast becoming the most disliked of politicians; Clinton, the born-again defender of Medicare and Social Security, saw his fortunes on the upswing.

From that point on, the polls remained relatively consistent, predicting an election victory unless something intervened to upset things. Nothing ever did. Dole had effectively lost the election before he ever got the Republican nomination.

Behind Medicare Lay the Economy

Social Security and Medicare are, of course, large issues in their own right. In a country where there is no other automatic social protection against illness, Medicare takes on big importance, and not only for the oldest generation for whom Medicare pays nearly half the medical bills, but also for the generation behind them which increasingly is being made responsible for the unpaid medical bills of their parents.

Medicare has already been cut, in fact a great deal, since it was instituted in the 1960s. With the passage of Medicare, the proportion of their income that the elderly spend on medical care decreased dramatically—only to soon start creeping back up again. One slight modification followed another, most of them not that big in themselves, but, in accumulation, they reduced coverage significantly. Today, retirees are paying a larger share of their own income just to supplement Medicare than they once paid, before Medicare existed, to cover their total medical costs. If Medicare were now to be reduced in any sudden and drastic way, it would be a catastrophe for a great many people.

That’s why the politicians up until now have been very careful not to admit they were cutting Medicare, even when they did it. And, as far as their public utterances were concerned, all they had ever done for Social Security was to make sure that more money was paid into its fund.

When the Republicans began loosely talking about the fact that no social program, not even Medicare, was "sacrosanct," all the warning bells began to ring.

Of course, the election didn’t turn on just this one issue. The fact is that the overall situation of the working class remains precarious. It’s true the economic recovery continues, but it’s the smallest recovery of all the post-war recoveries, and very little of its benefits have trickled down to the working class. While official unemployment has decreased—but not as much as in other recoveries—most of the slack has been taken up by part-time and temporary work. Wages are continuing to fall further behind inflation. The "average family" has managed to maintain its situation only by sending more of its members out to work, or by asking one of its members to work several jobs. Social programs which once offered some measure of short-term protection are being wiped out.

While Medicare may have been the issue on which this election focussed attention; nonetheless, Medicare was in reality an issue around which people’s discontent crystallized.

The Republicans Caught by their own Rhetoric

The irony of this campaign was that the Republicans and the Democrats had each proposed a series of cuts for Medicare, with only a slight difference between them. But when the storm broke, the Democrats hustled to take their proposal off the table and proposed to delay any vote until December—that is, until after the election. Gingrich and his disciples found no other way to respond, other than to defend making the cuts: Medicare had to be cut in order to save it.

In one sense, the Republicans had been trapped by their own rhetoric, a rhetoric suited to the reactionary views of the Christian fundamentalists who had provided the margin of their

victory in 1994. It was not simply, or even essentially, a question of cut backs in social programs. As far back as the Reagan years, the Republicans had tried to put together a popular voting constituency for themselves to counteract the support that the unions traditionally threw to the Democrats. Their answer was to appeal to the Christian fundamentalists on reactionary social positions, and especially on the question of abortion. Having mobilized the so-called right-to-lifers to vote in 1994, they continued to play to them on the abortion issue. But what had worked in 1994, began to backfire in 1996. Women were being driven more and more toward the Democratic party—the so-called "gender gap."

Dole had long defended the position that women should have the right to choose, but at the Republican convention he acceded to the demand to include a plank in the Republican platform demanding that abortion be made illegal. The result was that, as The New York Times commented, the "gender gap became a gender chasm."

Overall, women gave Clinton 54% to Dole’s 38, with Perot getting 7 points. They voted for House Democrats by a 55 to 45 margin. Women at every income level, every education level, married and unmarried, chose the Democrats over the Republicans, whether for the presidency or the congress. And women voted in larger numbers than did men: 52% of the voters were women. Undoubtedly, for the women who voted Democratic there were other issues—the perception that the Republicans were more ready to cut the social programs than the Democrats was also important. But, here too, the radical Republicans’ open proclamation that they were cutting welfare, when in reality both parties were doing it, helped push a certain number of women into the Democrats corner: all those single working mothers, who at one or another time in their lives had been forced onto welfare until they were able to find another job.

As far as total votes are concerned, the question of abortion probably had the largest impact on the election.

The Unions Turn Out their Members

Starting almost from the day they were elected, the new leadership of the AFL-CIO, under John Sweeney, began to make a vigorous campaign to turn out their membership in support of the Democrats. When the final tally was made, they had spent over 100 million dollars, 35 million of it in the effort to unseat some of the "Gingrich Gang".

In 1994, after two years of a Democratic administration and Democratic congress which had ignored almost every single item on the union’s "legislative agenda", they almost sat out the election. They were certainly careful about who got their money. They made a point of indicating that they had decided to reward only their "true friends."

Apparently, the specter of the Gingrich Gang frightened them back into their usual stance toward the Democrats.

This time, they began to campaign early, and they expended a lot of money and militant effort on the campaign. In the beginning, at least, they were somewhat open about their reasoning. They still weren’t very happy with Clinton’s record, but labor needed to keep Clinton in the White House to block what the Gingrich Gang was doing in congress. They supported Clinton’s claim that he was their last line of defense between Medicare and the Gingrich hordes.

All of this had a result. More union members did turn out. In 1996, people who came from a "union household" (that is, from a family with a union member) made up 23% of those who voted, as opposed to only 14% four years ago. (And that’s not because the unions have more members today; their numbers continue to go down.)

Moreover, the union members who did come out also voted more strongly Democratic this time. Clinton got a larger proportion of the vote from union households this time than has any Democratic candidate since the news services started taking these exit polls in 1972. The irony, of course, is that Clinton, of all the Democratic candidates going back as far as Franklin Roosevelt, had made less of an effort to appear to give anything to the unions. In fact, his stance has systematically been to make it clear he is taking as much distance from them as he can. Traditionally, Democratic Party candidates kick off the presidential campaign at Detroit’s Labor Day Parade, the biggest and most important one in the country. This year, both Clinton and Vice-president Gore missed the parade, without even any explanation. In fact, the explanation was obvious: Clinton, by his absence, was going to great pains to proclaim that labor has no hold on him.

What for the Working Class?

The goal of the union officials in this campaign had been first of all to increase participation in the elections by union members; second, to use that to re-elect Clinton; and third, to dump 33 of the so-called "Gingrich gang" Republican freshmen, as well as Senator Larry Pressler—Republicans they targeted as being the most anti-union and reactionary.

In terms of these goals, their campaign was a success. The vote of union members went up spectacularly. Clinton was re-elected. And 17 of 33 Gingrich Gang members were dumped. Seven more were nearly dumped. Most of the remaining 9 came from strongly Republican districts. Most interesting was the fact that Pressler lost, the only Republican senator up for re-election who did. And he lost in South Dakota, normally a Republican state, and a state that voted Republican in its other races, including the presidency.

It shows that when the union bureaucrats decide to mobilize to do something they can. Labor may be organizationally weaker today; but the real problem is how the bureaucrats have used the organization.

What did they do this time? Nothing—nothing but tie, once again, the working class to the major bourgeois party which not only shares in the responsibility for these last decades of attack on the working class, but which actually has played the major role in passing anti-working class measures. What did they do? Nothing but give Clinton the election.

What Will Clinton Do with this Gift?

On the night of his election victory, Clinton called on the Republicans to join with him to help him recreate "a vital center." In subsequent days, he talked about finding "a bipartisan framework to look at the longer range ... issues presented in Social Security and Medicare. I think there has to be some sort of commission, some sort of functioning bipartisan way of looking at that." There has even been some speculation that he will appoint his opponent, Bob Dole, to head the commission!

Obviously, Clinton would like to keep on passing the blame to the Republicans for the upcoming cuts in Medicare and Social Security.

And the Republicans know it. Trent Lott, new Senate Majority Leader for the Republican Party, responded, "Here’s what I’ve got to say, ‘Mr. President, you and your people demagogued this issue [Medicare] to the end, now what’s your proposal? Show me yours.’ They aren’t going to want to do that."

Behind this attempt to shift the blame is the real issue: Wall Street wants to see Medicare and Social Security cut, and both parties have engaged themselves to do it. Even while Clinton talks about setting up a new commission to study the matter he has reports from his last year’s commission on his desk, reports that insist that in one way or another Social Security and Medicare must be "privatized." That is, the money now tied up in these funds must be turned over to Wall Street, while the population must be taught that their possibility for retirement depends on their own ability to save during their working years.

The campaign has already begun. Book after book is now appearing, the most recent "important" one written by the former head of several big Wall Street firms, explaining that both Social Security and Medicare are about to founder. They must be reformed.

This week’s issue of Business Week carried an editorial saying the same thing. The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, USA Today—just name it, they’ve all been there, saying the same thing: Social Security must be reformed. Business Week even went so far, in October, as to advise the U.S. Congress to take "a Social Security Lesson from Argentina," which according to Business Week has "successfully privatized retirement benefits. Imagine how effective a U.S. effort could be."

Already some small inroads have been made in Social Security—not even counting the steadily increasing Social Security taxes on wage income. The age of retirement is currently slated to go up to 67 from its current 65, in increments, depending on birthrate, starting with those born in 1938, who will have to put in a few more months.

In fact, this campaign began, not now, but with the election campaign that Clinton made around his promises to "save Medicare". And the support that union officials gave to Clinton on this issue in reality was a support for the vicious attacks that are about to be unleashed on Social Security and Medicare by the man they helped put in the White House.

Social Security is not bankrupt.

What is, is the policy of the union bureaucrats who have used people’s fears on the subject to hand over a mandate to the very man the bourgeoisie has entrusted to do the dirty work.