The Spark

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

United States:
Bush Boxed In

Jan 23, 2006

A year ago, flush from his re-election victory, Bush proclaimed, "the people have spoken" and "embraced" his point of view. His re-election proved, he said, that he represented "the will of the people."

Today Bush hardly dares venture out in public, for fear of being picketed or heckled. His ratings in the opinion polls are running at historic lows. Even the Republican Party holds Bush at arm's length. During the 2005 elections, Bush was considered to be so "radioactive" that only one Republican invited him to make a campaign appearance. It seems that Bush has used up whatever credit and authority he had garnered because he happened to be president at the time of the 9-11 attacks.

But Bush's political problems go well beyond what the population thinks of him. His administration is under siege, being attacked by some of the highest levels of the power structure and establishment. On January 15 on a Sunday talk show, Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, raised the possibility of impeachment. No matter how remotely and theoretically Specter mentioned it, just the fact that a powerful senator publicly uttered the word "impeachment" was enough to make headlines – all the more since Specter is a Republican.

It was an indication that a significant part of the political structure and the state apparatus had deep problems and disagreements with the performance of Bush and his administration.

Iraq Quagmire

Obviously, the biggest problem for the Bush administration is the war in Iraq, a disaster for which it is now being held accountable.

On November 17, U.S. Representative John Murtha, a hawk who up until then had supported the war, demanded that the Bush administration begin withdrawing the military from Iraq "immediately." His statement unleashed a political firestorm. And all the more so because he said that the U.S. military presence in Iraq was what was fueling the war and that the war was getting worse. Stressing that the war was straining the U.S. military, Murtha spoke openly about the military's inability to retain its troops, including the most skilled and seasoned. Nor was it able to fulfill its recruitment quotas. Finally, he indicated that the Reserves and National Guard, called up over and over again, were being wrecked.

Obviously, Murtha was not speaking just for himself. Of all the members of Congress, he has the closest ties to the military. His strong criticism and demands were taken to represent the views of the military brass. Murtha was saying in public what the four-star generals could say only in private.

Certainly, when wars go badly, the military often blames the civilians, and especially the president. But Murtha's statement was much more than a complaint or a criticism. It was a warning and an ultimatum. And it came only after a long line of people close to the military, as well as to the foreign policy and intelligence apparatuses, had been publicly critical of how the Bush administration had carried out the war.

They had centered their attack on the Bush administration around three issues. One, its arrogance meant that it had not gone into Iraq with "overwhelming force," as Papa Bush had done in the Gulf War. Two, it did not seek to have behind the U.S. a broad coalition that would have spread the risk and responsibility for the war and occupation to a larger number of countries. Finally, the Bush administration went into Iraq without an "exit strategy." That is, it had no serious plan for having a state apparatus in Iraq to control the country so U.S. troops could leave. And, as Papa Bush himself pointed out publicly several times, this was in marked contrast to how the U.S. exited the first Gulf War – by leaving the country under the control of Saddam Hussein, and even giving back Hussein a big part of his military.

The Bush Junior administration – that is, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld – have always ignored these critiques. And they fired or sidelined those military people who dared utter them, most famously Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff during the beginning of the war.

In the months preceding Murtha's ultimatum, former high officials from Bush's own administration and that of his father had increased the harshness of their criticism of Bush administration policy. Brent Scrowcroft, the chief foreign policy adviser in Papa Bush's administration, issued a scathing attack in a lengthy New Yorker magazine interview, singling out the role of Vice President Cheney, a former colleague, by saying, "Quite frankly, I don't know Dick Cheney anymore." Larry Wilkerson, a retired colonel who had been Colin Powell's chief of staff when Powell was secretary of state, has been giving high-profile speeches and interviews deriding the "cabal" making policy in the Bush White House which he had served barely a year before. More than once he referred to Vice President Cheney as a "moron." In effect, they were presenting Cheney's head on a plate for Bush to use as a scapegoat. He ignored the offer.

Thus, through Murtha, the military issued an ultimatum. And it wasn't get out of Iraq immediately, as Murtha himself made clear, when he didn't vote for a resolution calling for that. What was being demanded was that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld butt out, that is, hand over the running of the war and of the military to the generals. One can assume that the generals would not have gone this far without broad support from important sectors of the bourgeoisie.

Social Security "Reform": the Fiasco

On the domestic side, Bush was being reproached for his failure to carry out a "reform" of Social Security. It might be more accurate to say, he was being reproached for sabotaging Social Security "reform" in the first months of his second term.

Over the last 30 years, Carter, Reagan and Clinton, Democrats and Republicans, had all succeeded in carrying out what they called "reforms' of Social Security. They increased the tax rate paid by workers, or they trimmed benefits or pushed back the retirement age. These so-called "reforms' were in reality attacks on the working population, passed for the purpose of enlarging the Social Security surplus, making more money available to fund the government's deficits, that is to fund what it was giving away to the bourgeoisie.

Given the fact that Social Security is such a broad program, covering most of the population, and it is so vital, especially for retirees, any attempt to attack it or cut it always carried the risk of provoking a big reaction from the population, especially from seniors, who turn out to vote on this question. That is why cutting Social Security has been referred to as "The Third Rail" of American politics. Yet, almost every presidential administration before Bush had pulled it off without provoking a big outcry.

Of course, other politicians did it by never seeming to attack Social Security benefits directly. Instead, the attacks were made in small incremental steps. They were put off into what appeared to be the distant future. The attacks were so disguised as to appear to be improvements. Actual cuts in benefits were managed by changing the esoteric formula that determine cost of living (COLA) adjustments.

When Bush made his proposal to "reform" Social Security, though, he did the exact opposite. In his first press conference after being re-elected, all puffed up from his big success, he announced his intention to privatize the Social Security program. That is, Bush openly declared that he intended to dump the old Social Security program, which paid out guaranteed benefits for as long as someone lived, and to substitute for it a private plan with no guarantees.

What made the proposal worse was its timing. Just a couple of years before, the stock market had crashed. Workers with 401(k)s had lost much of their savings. Regularly on the television news, workers could see the spectacle of executives from Enron and all the rest of the corporate scandals being led off in handcuffs for stealing the retirement savings of their employees. Who in their right mind would have trusted Wall Street with their Social Security money?

Bush had just stepped on the famous "Third Rail" of American politics. There was an immediate firestorm of disapproval. Congressmen and senators were deluged with phone calls and letters threatening to "throw the bums' out if they dared touch Social Security. The more Bush opened his mouth to reassure the population, the more intransigent became the opposition to his plan.

Any political support that Bush might have had collapsed. In mid-January 2005, Bill Thomas, the powerful Republican head of the House Ways and Means Committee in charge of all tax legislation, called a hasty press conference to declare that no Social Security legislation would get by his committee that year. Bush hadn't even delivered his State of the Union address yet. But Thomas was expressing what the rest of the Republicans in Congress were saying. They were not about to go out on a limb and then saw themselves off with it, to save face for the Bush administration, which did not have to face re-election.

The Bush administration tried to drum up support for the "reform" with a 60-city-in-60- days barnstorming tour which was then said to be extended to 30 more cities. But the public relations gimmick backfired. Even the carefully pre-screened audiences expressed vocal opposition to Bush's plan. Bush's barnstorming tour didn't get close to visiting even the first 60 cities.

Bush's Social Security privatization plan was DOA, Dead On Arrival. He wasn't able to do what every recent president had done – squeeze more out of Social Security for the benefit of the bourgeoisie. Bush had the votes in Congress to do that – not just from the Republicans, but from most Democrats. Even as his privatization was going down the tubes, almost all the Democratic senators signed a letter to Bush stating their willingness to enact "reform" legislation, just as soon as he took his privatization plan off the table. The Democrats, who posed as the protectors of Social Security, declared their willingness to attack the program for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.

Even the AFL-CIO and the AARP – the organizations supposedly representing the interests of workers and retirees, which had organized protests against Bush's privatization plans – signed on. They said that they recognized Social Security had to be "fixed," thus keeping open the possibility of support for the usual kind of "reform."

Bush's proposal to "privatize" Social Security was based on the narrow exigencies of a handful of big Wall Street financial companies, which stood to reap untold riches by running the personal accounts that would be set up. By stubbornly continuing to pursue privatization, the Bush administration sabotaged a reform that could have resulted in a bigger surplus in the Social Security trust fund, helping to fund the budget deficit, giving the bourgeoisie as a whole more tax breaks and greater subsidies.

Once the window of opportunity to "reform" Social Security was closed, it closed for quite a while. Given the explosiveness of the issue, it's easier for a lame duck president to push it through – if he does it right after his second election. That is what Charles Grassley, the powerful Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, meant when he said that another run at Social Security "reform" wouldn't be possible for the next four years, and more likely the next eight years.

"Heckuva Job, Brownie"

Of all the stupid and callous statements that Bush had ever made, the one that shocked people the most was his praise of his FEMA director Michael Brown after Hurricane Katrina hit. There stood the glaring contrast, for everyone to see, between the two former frat boys playfully posing for the cameras while only a short distance away hundreds of thousands of peoples' lives had been washed away in the flood waters.

For Bush, this was a political disaster, symbolizing for the population everything swaggering about Bush, about the way he disdained the population's needs.

Certainly, every administration for the last 30 years had cut back on vital public services, especially emergency services. And this was the main underlying cause for FEMA's collapse in the middle of the crisis.

But Bush's appointment of Brown and others like him exacerbated the problems. When conditions during Katrina were at their worst, neither Brown nor Bush could even acknowledge that there was a problem – something that at least other politicians knew how to do.

Afterwards, the Bush administration was excoriated for its appointment of Brown to head FEMA. In fact, all administrations use political patronage to reward their friends and allies, and some are even real incompetents. But they usually head departments and agencies in name only.

This country is characterized as a democratic republic, meaning officials who head the government are elected to office. But elected officials and their appointees come and go. They are not the ones who run the every day affairs of the government for the bourgeoisie, defend and impose the bourgeoisie's interests. That's done by a permanent state apparatus, headed by tens of thousands of professionals, who remain on the job, no matter who is in office. They are the ones who carry out policy – and often set it.

Under Bush, the political appointees imposed themselves on the bureaucracy, the permanent professional staffs. The result was that much of the professional staff began to depart, leaving the agency almost a hollow shell. This is certainly what happened at FEMA, and it happened at other departments and agencies, most notably the Pentagon. Rumsfeld and his cronies purged the generals and officers who dared question his policies. Those who remain are said to openly despise Rumsfeld and those around him. At the CIA, Bush's director, Porter Goss, purged most of the top professionals in retaliation for their reports, which had raised questions about how Bush had carried out the war in Iraq and the "war against terror." Goss replaced them with toadies.

Bush appointees in many cases tried to run the agencies and bureaucracies that they headed like private fiefdoms, with which to reward their friends. Thus, a couple of oil service and construction companies draw a huge benefit from the war in Iraq, while the war becomes a more and more costly disaster. A few financial service companies are poised to benefit from Social Security privatization that never happens. In other words, the Bush administration was defending the narrow parochial interests of a small part of the bourgeoisie, at the expense of the more general interests of the bourgeoisie.

Certainly, this happens to greater or lesser extent under all administrations – but usually within limits. But under Bush, it has been taken much further – with perhaps the exceptions of the Harding administration in the 1920s, or the Grant administration in the years following the Civil War.

Letting the Christian Fundamentalists Set Policy

Symptomatic of Bush's stance is the way he has rewarded the Christian fundamentalists, who, accounting for only about 10 to 15% of the population, make up the most solid part of his voting base. Instead of passing out a few crumbs to this small sector of the population, as politicians usually do for their voting base, Bush turned over important decision-making duties to them in the Departments of Health and Human Services, the Federal Drug Administration and on commissions and advisory committees that deal with reproductive and sexual health. Tom Coburn, an anti-condom crusader, was made co-chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS, which meant he advocated policies that would spread AIDS, not prevent it. Dr. Alma Golden, a pediatrician who claims that abstinence is the only acceptable means of birth control, was made Deputy Assistant Secretary of Population Affairs – a guarantee that she would be at constant loggerheads with medical professionals. Bush appointed Dr. W. David Hager, who opposes prescribing contraceptives to unmarried women, to sit on the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. All this had to be viewed by the people in these departments as the surest way of sabotaging their work.

Not surprisingly, many of the professionals in these departments resigned. In September 2005, for example, Dr. Susan F. Wood, the top FDA official in charge of women's health issues, resigned. Not only did she denounce the actions of the FDA director, who had overturned the decision of the science advisory panel to make the "morning after" pill more widely available, she excoriated the Bush administration for driving out the researchers on whom the FDA is dependent.

Her denunciation was quickly echoed by people at other agencies: educators, for example, reproached the Bush education department for undermining the public schools through vindictive measures in the No Child Left Behind Act, then turning over parts of the public school system to churches in the form of charter schools. Big pharmaceutical companies and "gen-tech" companies reproached Bush appointees for preventing funding for most stem cell research.

It is a standard procedure for politicians to appeal to religion to get religious people to vote for them. But it is quite another thing to allow religious fanatics to set policy for the bourgeoisie, to run its institutions, government, schools, hospitals, research centers. This not only discredits those institutions, creating a laughing stock. It also undercuts their ability to actually function.

Furthermore, it leaves open the possibility of a backlash, leading to greater mobilizations of the population, in general. The protests that these kinds of policies provoke today could easily be dwarfed by the public outburst from women if the Supreme Court with Bush's two new judges overturns or completely guts Roe v. Wade.

Leaks, Investigations and Indictments

The Iraq quagmire and the Social Security "privatization" mess, combined with the huge wellspring of antagonism that the Bush administration provoked inside the state machinery have all led to a situation in which the state apparatus – and even his own party – seem to be moving today to proscribe and hamstring Bush.

This has come in the form of wide-ranging investigations and indictments.

The first big investigation was initiated by the CIA. It referred a third-rate leak of a CIA agent's name to the Justice Department for an investigation of the White House. In effect, the CIA forced Bush to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate him and his staff on a technicality. So far, the special prosecutor has indicted Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, thus forcing him to resign. The special prosecutor also continues to investigate Karl Rove, Bush's chief political aid, tying Rove up in his own legal defense, greatly reducing his political activity and influence. These attacks take aim directly at the White House. They are a warning that anyone can be removed, including even Libby's boss, Cheney.

Bush has been weakened further by the investigation and prosecution of some of his closest and most important allies. The top Republican leaders in both houses of Congress are facing legal woes. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist is under investigation on both criminal and civil charges. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, considered to be the most powerful man in Congress, is under indictment in Texas. The guilty plea by the powerful Republican lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, seems aimed at facilitating further indictments in Congress, including DeLay and those in DeLay's political machine. It could also well touch several White House officials – including Karl Rove. Grover Nordquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, another important behind-the-scenes player connected to the White House and Republican Party, is also under investigation. And the fact that Ralph Reed, one of the leading organizers of Christian fundamentalists political organizations, is under investigation signals that Christian Fundamentalists may be in the legal cross-hairs.

In December, the release by the New York Times of the National Security Agency (NSA) domestic spying story signaled that Bush himself was coming under attack. This story was based on leaks from many sources inside the NSA. And when the Bush administration defended its policies, claiming that the information garnered by the NSA was necessary to stop terrorist attacks, high FBI officials stepped forward to discredit Bush's story, telling the press that the information from the NSA was not only useless, but a huge waste of time, which keeps them from being able to do needed "security" work.

In other words, much of the state apparatus – and especially, important parts of the CIA, NSA and FBI – has turned on the Bush administration.

Republicans in Congress have begun to call the Bush administration to account. The anti-torture amendment, which had been pushed by the U.S. military, was sponsored by Senator John McCain. Over Bush's objections, Congress voted for it by an overwhelming margin – with the Senate voting for it 90 to 9. Of course, no one seriously believes the U.S. will stop using torture. But just like every other government, it just won't do it openly. The amendment is only a signal that Congress has had enough of Bush thumbing his nose at U.S. allies, which gets in the way of U.S. policy.

What is more significant is that starting in early February, Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter will open the investigation into the NSA charges, charges that could lead to impeachment, or even the possibility of criminal charges being filed.

This is not to say that impeachment is likely. As John Murtha told 60 Minutes: "We want the Bush administration to succeed." But impeachment is a threat. The Bush administration is being boxed in.

This sudden cascade of indictments and attacks against the Bush administration and its allies cannot just be dismissed as the periodic house cleaning after the corruption caused by one party having dominated government for a while. It is more than that. The state apparatus is asserting itself against a Bush administration, which seemed to believe it had been given "a mandate" to ride roughshod over them.

The Democrats, for the most part, have just stood aside, hoping to see the Bush administration self-destruct. For them, it's the best possible world: they don't have to do anything against the interests of the bourgeoisie, and at the same time, by doing nothing they aren't overtly antagonizing their own voting base, broad parts of the working class.

Certainly, it can be gratifying for workers to see Bush come under fire, to have the entire gang of scoundrels be brought up on charges.

But the side that is attacking him does not represent the interests of working people any more than Bush does. What's the difference to working people if the U.S. is more efficient at establishing greater U.S. imperial domination over the Middle East? Certainly, it is of no help to workers if there are more Social Security "reforms' which force working people to pay higher taxes and work more years for benefits that are increasingly stingy.

Neither will the offensive against the working class be any slower, if the Democrats take back the Congress or presidency in the coming years, and put their own cronies at the head of these agencies. The Democrats voted for every resolution on the war, and they were the ones who pushed Bush to resurrect those Social Security "reforms." They helped cut public services leading to such disasters as the one on the Gulf Coast after Katrina. And today, even while they criticize Bush for appointing Samuel Alito, someone who has openly opposed Roe v Wade, to the Supreme Court, they pretend there is nothing they can do about it – which, quite obviously, is not true. They have all the means they need to stall the nomination, preventing any vote from ever taking place on him. Up until now, they"ve made it clear they won't do it.

This is a fight between the bourgeoisie's state apparatus and its political parties over the best way to impose the interests of the American ruling class on working people in this country and on the rest of the world. Maybe we can enjoy the spectacle of them squabbling with each other, but at the end of the game, whoever wins will still be a faithful part of the bourgeoisie's team.