The Spark

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

United States:
Election Time and the Democrats Unpack their Antiwar Stance from Mothballs

Jan 25, 2004

Whatever the outcome of the Democratic primaries, before the January 19 Iowa caucuses, former Vermont governor Howard Dean was the frontrunner in the race for the presidential nomination. He had the highest poll numbers (for what they were worth), the most campaign contributions, and he had consistently drawn the largest crowds. According to one report, in Iowa he drew crowds that were eight times larger than the one who was considered to be his nearest rival, Representative Dick Gephardt, even though Gephardt is from Missouri and Iowa is his backyard. And Dean had racked up the endorsements of the two biggest unions in the country, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) and the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), while gaining the endorsements of Al Gore and Bill Bradley, top rivals for the party's nomination four years ago, as well as Tom Harkin, Iowa's senior senator.

A year ago, Dean was ranked at the bottom of the polls. A Newsweek poll from January 2003, scored Dean at four percent, compared to Al Sharpton's six percent Dean was an unknown, a very long shot with a tiny organization, almost no money and no prospects. He certainly didn't have the national recognition or connections of a Senator John Kerry or Senator Joe Lieberman. He didn't have Gephardt's union ties. His record as governor was not particularly attractive to the Democratic Party base, since he had cut education and social programs many times. Finally, Dean had no political advantage as a governor of Vermont, a state whose entire population totals only 600,000 people. And since New England is already a solid Democratic bastion, Dean couldn't even do what two other governors – Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Clinton in 1992 and 1996 – had done, that is, deliver some states in the South, a Republican stronghold. He had nothing going for him, neither with the Democratic Party apparatus, not with its traditional voting base.

Nothing – except that, by criticizing Bush's push for war on Iraq, he tapped into the large reservoir of opposition to the war in the population, and especially in the Democratic Party's usual voting base. Two other candidates – Representative Dennis Kucinich and Reverend Al Sharpton – had also criticized Bush over the war, but Dean was more "mainstream" and "acceptable" in Democratic Party circles, and this gave him more access to the news media. He became the one Democratic candidate that most people associated with opposition to the war. In the early months of 2003, with the Iraq War dominating the preoccupations of so much of the population, the other Democratic presidential candidates – Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt and Edwards – were greeted by small crowds peppered with anti-war demonstrators protesting the candidates' pro-war position. Everywhere Dean went, he was met by a groundswell of support and enthusiasm. This happened before the war, after it was declared and all through the occupation.

Dean's poll numbers soared. By early January, he headed the pack with poll numbers that were substantially higher than anyone else. According to the CBS News/New York Times poll in the period of January 12-15, Dean had 24% of the Democratic electorate nationwide, twice as much as his nearest rivals. But in Iowa, Dean unexpectedly finished a distant third, with only half the votes of the new frontrunner, Kerry. And this loss was made worse, when he shot himself in the foot with his ludicrous post-election rant, topped off with that scream heard round the country, which the news media turned into fodder for endless jokes.

A Population Against the War

When the political campaigns began in earnest in late 2002 and early 2003, there was strong opposition to the war throughout the country. Almost every city was swept by demonstrations that ranked among the largest in those cities' history. The newspapers reported that the demonstrations were attended by "the mainstream," that is, ordinary people, families – a cross section of the country. Regularly on Friday or Saturday, there were peace vigils in little towns as well as big cities. On university campuses and in high schools, students and teachers organized teach-ins, film showings and demonstrations. In high schools in many cities, there were walkouts, often of students and teachers together – something that had not often happened during the Viet Nam War. Officers of some local trade unions created a national committee that opposed the war, which also hadn't happened on this scale during the Viet Nam War. Then of course there were the monster demonstrations on the February 15-16 weekend all over the country, including Washington, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

City councils in large and medium-sized cities, especially where there was a large concentrated working class, passed resolutions opposing the war. Most of the resolutions called on the U.S. to get the approval and sanction of the U.N. before invading, which was a way to appear to question the war, while diverting opposition in the direction of accepting the underlying assumptions for the war. But the fact that the local politicians had to pass a resolution at all was a recognition of just how widespread the anti-war sentiment had grown.

Once the U.S. started the war on March 19, the politicians and news media triumphantly declared that the polls showed that much of this opposition had dropped off. Polls are always somewhat misleading, especially those taken in the beginning of a war, when people are careful what they answer to a stranger's questions on the phone. But even the polls soon changed, as it began to sink in that not only were the troops not welcomed in Iraq, they were also not coming home after Baghdad fell. It became obvious that they had been sent on an open-ended, dangerous and bloody occupation thousands of miles from home. Expressions of protest and anger began to come from the troops, as well as their families. Anger among the families had become so strong by summer that a colonel and his entourage had to be escorted from a meeting at Fort Stewart Georgia that turned into a near mutiny of angry wives, mothers and fathers. And the October 25, 2003 demonstration in Washington, D.C. against the war was led by a contingent from Military Families Speak Out, an organization of people who have family members who are soldiers in Iraq. At the march, their spokeswoman said, "Don't extend them. Don't redeploy them. Don't replace them. Bring them home now." And while there have not yet been a lot of AWOL's from the military, the Pentagon itself recently admitted that it has frozen the service tours of over 40,000 National Guards and Reserves who had requested to be mustered out of the service when their duty time was up.

Today, there may be fewer demonstrations than before the war started. But the war remains deeply unpopular. As the January 8 Los Angeles Times pointed out, recent Gallup polls show that only 35% of the population say that the U.S. was right to go to war – while nearly 60% tell the pollsters that the U.S. didn't have sufficient reason to invade Iraq.

The positive reaction to Dean was itself a testimony to how unpopular the war is and has been. Not only did his continued denunciations throughout the entire period not cost him support – as the traditional "wisdom" predicted it should have – from the very beginning, his support grew at the expense of his rivals, who, either like Gephardt and Lieberman, openly supported the war outright, or like Kerry and Edwards, soon began to hedge their support of the war with criticism of the Bush administration.

The Democratic Party Leadership Supports the War

Almost from the start of the drive to war, the Democratic congressional leadership had lined up behind Bush. They endorsed every one of his lies, from the Iraqi "terrorist threat," to the infamous claims about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction." On June 3, 2002, House Minority leader Dick Gephardt announced that he was ready to work with the Bush administration "to build an effective policy to terminate the threat posed by the Iraqi regime," or in plain English to go to war. Gephardt then proceeded to write the Congressional resolution giving Bush a blank check to launch this war. On October 10, 2002, Congress adopted this resolution by a wide margin, 77 to 23 in the Senate and 296 to 133 in the House. In both houses of Congress, there were more than enough votes from the Democrats to assure the wide margin. In the Senate, a majority of Democrats, 29 (including Kerry, Edwards and Lieberman), voted to authorize war, while only 21 voted against. In the House, where 126 voted against the war, 81 (including Gephardt), nonetheless voted for, more than enough to let Bush claim he had bi-partisan support for the war. Moreover, as their speeches made clear, these Democratic "No" votes did not really mean "No" – they meant only that the Democrats would have liked Bush first to get the approval of the U.N. before he went to war. After the votes, both House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Senator Joseph Lieberman joined Bush for the bill-signing ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.

It was the usual Democratic Party game. Some Democrats came out against the war – enough so that today the Democrats can put the blame for the war back in Bush's lap, but not so many as to have blocked the war at the time – or at the very least made Bush's political life much more difficult.

By the early summer of 2003, it had become clear that the occupation was turning into a bloody and costly quagmire. A few Democrats tried to publicly distance themselves from the war. Gephardt, Kerry and Edwards all accused the Bush administration of lying about the weapons of mass destruction, about the supposed Iraqi threat – as if these politicians were not aware of the intelligence the CIA and some military men had circulated – not to mention all the reports from the U.N. weapons inspectors that contradicted Bush administration claims.

Some Democrats began to call for investigations and public hearings about the forged documents from Niger that the Bush administration had used as supposed proof that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons. Or else they denounced the war profiteering of such companies as Haliburton and Bechtel. And they questioned whether the Bush administration had properly planned for the occupation.

But none of this rhetoric stopped the Democrats in Congress from voting all the extra war credits that the Bush administration wanted, the 67 billion dollars in the spring and another 87 billion dollars in October. With the Gallup poll showing that 56% of the U.S. population opposing the appropriation, Kerry and Edwards did vote against the second, 87-billion-dollar appropriation. (Republican Senator John McCain charged them with "pandering" to the people who supported Dean.) But that didn't stop the 87-billion-dollar appropriation gaining two more Democratic votes in the House, and eight more in the Senate, as compared to the number of Democrats who voted for the original October 2002 Congressional war authorization.

In other words, even as the Bush administration was coming under more fire from the professionals who run the state apparatus, as well as a rising tide of anti-war sentiment in the population, the Democrats closed ranks with the Bush administration, voting to appropriate more money for the war, at the same time providing the Bush administration the political cover that it needed to continue prosecuting the war.

Maneuvers and Lies

Nonetheless, anti-war sentiment continued to increase, and Dean's poll numbers to grow. Among the Democratic contenders, Lieberman alone continued to endorse the war completely, and his standing went on eroding. His support for the war may not totally explain the ever smaller crowds for his speeches and his sinking poll numbers. But, at the very least, putting himself forward as the sole unconditional supporter of the war did not improve his chances. The other Democratic presidential candidates had all moved to distance themselves from support for the war, complaining one after the other about Bush's lying ways.

At the point last summer that Dean was outdistancing all the others, the "anti-war" general, Wesley Clark, a relative unknown domestically, was pushed into the race by Bill and Hillary Clinton. Clark, who put himself forward as a military man who had always questioned Bush's justification for the war, immediately emerged as one of the front-runners. His entry is certainly a maneuver of some sort aimed at Dean, but exactly what Clark (or the Clintons, who continue openly to support the war) have in mind is not so clear. Is it just to undercut Dean? Will he end up as vice-president for a Kerry or Edwards, to provide them some cover? Will he end up as the "compromise" candidate that the convention can choose, presented as an "anti-war" candidate with impeccable military credentials? Or is Clark a stalking horse for Hillary Clinton's own run at the presidency in 2008? Maybe neither he nor the Clintons have decided yet what his candidacy is aiming at.

The Democrats who did nothing to oppose the war when it might have counted are obviously trying to calculate today how to make it seem that they did.

At the same time, the Democrats are looking over their shoulder at Bush, who with the cooperation of most of the news media is trying to bury what is really happening in Iraq, the worsening conditions in Iraq, the continuing clashes between U.S. occupation forces and the Iraqi people or insurgents, the growing number of U.S. killed and wounded. Instead more and more the front page news is filled with all the Bush administration's happy talk: how the U.S. is supposedly reducing the number of troops in Iraq from 120,000 to 105,000 by the end of May, and how the U.S. is "building democracy" by supposedly "helping" to form a new Iraqi government, to which the U.S. will supposedly hand over sovereignty by June 30th, therefore supposedly formally ending the occupation, etc.

If Bush gets away with peddling this fiction, if he succeeds in making the real war in Iraq disappear as a concern, then there is no doubt that he will waltz to victory in the November 2004 election, and then take the election as a mandate to pursue the war, which he had temporarily pushed into the shadows.

Opposing Bush, While Supporting His War

But if the Democrats did beat Bush, what would any of them do to end the war that they are now criticizing?

Today, all of the major Democratic candidates, except Lieberman who has staked out the most pro-war position, may continue to denounce the war as "wrong" and a "terrible gamble," in Dean's words. But Dean, Kerry, Clark and Edwards all agree that they support the continuing occupation of Iraq. Even Howard Dean, who owed his early frontrunner status to the fact that he was the only major candidate who very early staked out a position opposing the war, said, "Now that we're there, we're stuck." In other words, if he's elected, he will have to live with the choice Bush made. "We have no choice. It's a matter of national security. If we leave ... Iraq, the result is a very significant danger to the United States." (Washington Post, August 25, 2003).

The only difference that these Democrats say that they have with Bush is that they would find a way to bring in the United Nations to Iraq, and, therefore, lower the cost of the occupation for the United States. Typical of this kind of rhetoric is what Kerry wrote last October, when he explained that his vote against Bush's request for 87 billion dollars to continue the war was not a vote against the war. Said Kerry, "America's national security requires a muscular strategy that brings freedom and prosperity to post-war Iraq... [But] I disagree with the Bush approach because it simply doesn't share the burden with other countries... I think we win the peace in Iraq by internationalizing this effort. We have to have the U.N...."

Certainly, none of these candidates propose to bring the troops home any time soon. Nor have they stepped forward to denounce the Bush administration's maneuvers to increase troop strength, that will undoubtedly be used to step up the war. The U.S. is in the process of shipping over 105,000 fresh troops to Iraq, with over 40% of these troops being either National Guards or Reserves. The Bush administration may talk about bringing other troops home – in the future, of course. But for now, they will overlap, bringing the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq to over 200,000 for an unspecified period of time. And the military is taking other measures to keep at least some of the veteran troops in combat longer. It has already frozen 7,000 troops in Iraq past their discharge date. And the administration decided to offer bonuses of up to $10,000 to any soldier who signs up – for as long as three years more for additional duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

And that is not all. According to Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker magazine (December 15, 2003), the Pentagon is also bringing in thousands of Special Forces and paid mercenaries in order to carry out targeted assassinations in a program similar to the Phoenix program that the U.S. used during the Viet Nam War from 1968 to 1972, which killed an estimated 70,000 Vietnamese.

So, while the Bush administration claims soothingly that it will be reducing its troops in Iraq, all the signs point to a step-up of the U.S. war in Iraq, a growing bloodbath for the Iraqi people.

Where are Kerry, Clark, Edwards and Dean while all this is going on? Are they denouncing the numbers game that is covering the increase in troop strength in Iraq? Are they trying to mobilize the Democrats to prevent Bush from sending any more troops over there? Have they even raised the issue? No, no and no again.

While building up the army for Iraq, the Bush administration has been playing up the supposed terrorist threat, declaring orange alerts, canceling flights, fingerprinting and photographing immigrants visas – anything and everything to create an atmosphere of hysteria – while it buries the real war, the U.S. war against Iraq.

Certainly, the Democratic candidates could use the electoral pulpit to expose what the Bush administration is doing right now, the lies it is telling now, rather than concentrating on the lies it told before, about which nothing can be done. If they want to reproach Bush for his lies about weapons of mass destruction, at the very least they could make the connection between those lies to justify starting the war and the lies being told now to keep it going.

The election of Clark, Kerry, Edwards or even Dean will not bring this war to a stop. It would simply exchange a Democrat for the Republican currently running the war. What's worse is that if Dean or any of these other supposedly "anti-war" Democrats is elected, this can easily sow illusions, diverting the growing popular opposition to the war into a dead end.

Not the First Time this Game Has Been Run on a People Sick of War

It would not be the first time that a party had run on anti-war sentiments, but then, once in power, pursued that same war. In 1916, in the middle of World War I, Woodrow Wilson ran for a second term as president under the slogan, "He kept us out of war" only to turn around after his inauguration in March 1917 to lead the U.S. directly into war one month later. In 1940, Roosevelt ran for president, using "neutrality" during World War II as a cover while preparing for the U.S. entrance into that war – including by blockading the Japanese so completely that they were forced to attack to open up the trade lanes. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson ran as the so-called "peace candidate" against Republican Barry Goldwater, portraying Goldwater as a warmonger who would take the nation to war in Viet Nam. Immediately after his landslide victory in the election, Johnson sharply escalated the war that he had already been pursuing.

Of course, the Democrats weren't the only ones to play the "peace" card during an election. In 1968, the Republican Richard Nixon ran in the middle of the Viet Nam War, promising that he had a "secret peace" plan to end the war in Viet Nam. Once elected, Nixon pursued the Viet Nam War for another five years, ordering the heaviest bombing of the war at the very end. And, yes, even in the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush attacked the Clinton administration, including Gore, for "nation building" – that is, all the recent small wars that the Clinton administration had carried out, as in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo.

The news media may have characterized the Dean candidacy as a break in tradition. Actually, it's only a repeat of a game already played by the bourgeois parties. Hopefully what won't be repeated is the disorientation the U.S. population felt in earlier times when the "anti-war" candidate took the nation into war or expanded an unpopular war.

The Union Apparatuses

As usual, the AFL-CIO and its constituent union apparatuses are supporting players in the electoral game. Their main question has been which of the Democrats to support in the primaries.

The AFL-CIO had been expected to hand its endorsement over to Representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri, their long-time close ally. But when Dean gained the lead in the summer, the AFL-CIO first postponed its decision, then finally left it up to the various constituent unions to make their own decisions. Some of the industrial unions, led by the Teamsters, Steelworkers and Machinists, did line up behind Gephardt. But unexpectedly the UAW, one of the unions most closely identified with him, did not. Officially, the International union left it up to the various UAW regions and locals to endorse the candidates of their own choice. In Vermont, a UAW local endorsed Dean, while in Iowa the region endorsed Gephardt.

But then the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades with 140,000 members endorsed the Dean campaign. After that the two biggest unions in the AFL-CIO – AFSCME and the SEIU – endorsed him in a dramatic joint announcement. AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said his union had also considered endorsing Clark.

Support for Dean was not predicated on the union apparatuses' own opposition to the war. None of the top union leaders had opposed it. At the very most, during the build-up to the war, the SEIU issued a weak-worded letter that said that the U.S. government ought to get U.N. approval. But it said nothing when AFL-CIO President John Sweeney announced the federation's support for the war, under the guise of supporting the troops. And they haven't changed since.

Neither did the unions endorse Dean because they were so impressed by his record as governor. It wasn't just that as governor, Dean carried out budget cuts in social programs and education, along with the tax and fee increases for working people. After all, he was no different in this regard than other Democratic governors. But Dean did not go out of his way to smooth things over with union officials, as most other Democrats had done. Instead, as governor of Vermont, Dean fashioned himself as a Clinton-style, "centrist" Democrat, "not beholden" to "the special interests," which are nothing but code words for unions. In fact, Dean has never paid much attention to the unions. There are only 35,000 union members in the entire state, and most of them are teachers. And Dean had attacked the teachers unions by proposing to overhaul the bargaining procedure in the state. When the unions opposed it, he went ahead and tried to implement it anyway. The teachers unions refused to endorse Dean in either his 1996 or 1998 election runs.

Besides that, Dean often took the kinds of political stands that antagonized the union apparatuses. As the governor of a state on the border of Canada, Dean endorsed NAFTA. He spoke in favor of privatizing a lot of state jobs. He attacked Social Security, saying that the retirement age should be raised to 68 or even 70. And he said that Medicare was a complete mess and ought to be overhauled, including by cutting benefits.

So, why did the unions endorse Dean? SEIU President Andrew Stern spelled it out when he and McEntee made their announcement. According to Stern, "a candidate that can energize people to get to the polls, a candidate that can raise the money to be heard, and a candidate that can draw clear distinctions between himself and George Bush is a candidate that's going to win." In other words, AFSCME and the SEIU had made the same kind of calculations as did Gore and Bradley: Dean had the best chance of beating Bush.

Of course, now with Gephardt out of the race, and Dean, at least as of this writing, fading, it seems that there is a growing possibility that the union apparatuses have placed their bets on the wrong two candidates. Of course, that changes little. The union apparatuses will support no matter what Democrat becomes the party's nominee. This means that the union apparatuses will provide the Democrats the union bureaucracy's structure for mounting campaign rallies, handing out fliers, and getting out the vote, not to speak of many millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the unions' political action funds.

The unions' efforts may help whatever Democrat who wins the nomination cash in on the anti-war sentiment in the population. They may give him a cover, hiding his anti-working class record from view. Their efforts may further peoples' illusions in a Dean, Edwards, Kerry or Clark.

They won't translate into constructing an effective barrier to this war, any more than they will to addressing the very real problems the working class confronts today inside the country. For the union apparatuses, that doesn't matter. What they want is to put a Democrat in office.

Waiting Until November? It's a Mistake!

No matter which "anti-war" Democrat, Kerry, Dean, Edwards or Clark, gains the nomination, it's not at all automatic that he will win the November election. In fact, the first thing he will have to overcome is the long-standing – and very well grounded – apathy toward the elections that exists in the working class. (We need to remember that about half the eligible electorate has not been voting in recent years in presidential elections, and the rate of abstention was higher among the working class.) If any of these Democrats does win the election, it will only be because larger numbers of the working class than usual go out to vote, believing that his stand will translate into an end of this war.

But if all those workers can mobilize themselves to vote for someone who says he will stop the war, they can just as easily mobilize to fight against that war and to defend their own class interests at home – starting right now. There's no reason to wait for November, no reason to let 10 more months of slaughter go on. And there is no reason to let the situation of the working class continue to degrade. Certainly, the political "outsiders," Dean or Clark, would have never had a chance whatsoever if the disgust against the politicians who led this war were not widespread and deep-rooted in the working class, a sentiment reinforced by the constant barrage of attacks being levied against workers inside the country.

Those same sentiments can be turned by the workers to their own benefit.

The main problem for working people is to begin to regain confidence in their own ability to act, mobilize and organize in their own interests.