The Spark

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

Elections:
Behind the Shiny New Politics Lies the Same Old Political Sludge

Aug 1, 2008

The Democratic primaries were barely over before Barack Obama began demonstratively to move his campaign to the right. Only a few hours after the last primary votes were counted, he addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the primary pro-Israel lobby in the United States. He asserted Jerusalem “should remain 100% undivided” under Israeli control, and he pledged to work to “isolate Hamas.” Calling Iran the biggest threat to peace in the region, he tried to explain away his earlier offer to meet the leaders of Iran, without any preconditions, saying instead, “I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leaders at a time and place of my choosing if, and only if, it can advance the interests of the United States.” Taking a page from George W. Bush’s book, he blustered, “I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel.” Ironically, he put the emphasis on the military threat exactly at the point the Bush administration was moving to soften U.S. relations with Iran, hinting the U.S. might establish an embassy in Tehran for the first time in 28 years.

A few weeks later Obama threw out that calculated bombshell, saying “When I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I’m sure I’ll have more information and will continue to revise my policies.” Even if he rushed to bend the stick the other way later in the same day, he had made the point: his position on Iraq and withdrawing troops was not nearly as firm as many people had taken it to be.

But it was on the domestic side that his move to the right was particularly glaring. Calling public financing a barrier to the influence of wealth over the elections, Obama had pledged to keep his campaign within its limits. Instead, he became the first presidential candidate since public financing was enacted in 1971 to turn his back on it.

Having once urged a moratorium on the death penalty on the grounds that its imposition was “flawed,” he now declared himself in agreement with the minority opinion presented by the two most reactionary justices on the Supreme Court – Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia – who argued for its expansion to cover crimes less than murder.

In mid-June, he met privately with extreme right-wing evangelical leaders – including several of the most vociferous opponents of abortion and public schools. Two weeks later, he announced that not only would he continue Bush’s program of handing over government money to religious institutions, he would expand it. And, in an interview with Relevant, a Christian fundamentalist magazine, Obama showed himself ready to chip away further at Roe v. Wade: “I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that ‘mental distress’ qualifies as the health of the mother.” Like many other politicians who pretend to defend women’s right to choose, Obama was ready to erect still another limitation on that right in order to pander to the anti-abortion crowd. These limitations, taken together, have seriously reduced women’s legal access to abortion.

The clearest expression of how much Obama was trying to reposition himself was his vote for Bush’s bill, expanding the legal authority of the executive to spy electronically on American citizens, while guaranteeing that any company that had earlier broken the law helping the government to spy would not be prosecuted. For months, he had promised to help bottle up the bill in debate, which would have prevented the Republicans from easing it through while Bush was still in office. But when the vote came, he broke off his campaign to return for the vote, joining a minority of the Democratic Party to give Bush what he asked for – and what one of Bush’s advisers called “more than the President had hoped for.”

Certainly, Obama isn’t the only slippery character running for president. John McCain had already been moving to junk the image he had cultivated as a “maverick,” a different kind of Republican who, on a few high profile issues, had appeared to take more “liberal” positions, almost like a Democrat.

McCain had once voted against Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, saying: “I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief.” Today, his good conscience seems to have deserted him – he says he would reinstate those tax cuts for the wealthy, which are scheduled to expire in a few years.

He once opposed off-shore drilling for oil and natural gas on environmental concerns, as well as on grounds that the oil companies benefit too cheaply from public lands. Not now. With the current high oil prices providing the pretext for additional hand-outs to these monstrously wealthy companies, McCain rushed to give them another chunk of public resources, announcing his support for these giants on the same day Bush did.

McCain once had said that, although morally opposed to abortion, he would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade because it would force innumerable women to go through “illegal and dangerous operations.” Today, not only does he say he favors overturning Roe v. Wade, he denounces abortion regularly, even when it’s not on the agenda, for example, in a recent forum on the economy. Having once called right-wing Christian fundamentalist leaders “agents of intolerance,” and “corrupting influences on religion and politics,” McCain embraced those same “agents of intolerance,” seeking their support.

On immigration, McCain had differentiated himself from most of the Republican Party with his proposal to offer legalization, even if very limited, to some of the immigrants without papers. But from the moment he started campaigning, McCain began to focus his comments on “closing the border.”

Both candidates had built up a certain aura of a “new politics” – McCain with his “maverick” stance, and Obama with his talk about “change.” But this “new politics” was clearly and always only a stance. McCain, a maverick? Not hardly. His own record shows it. In 2007, McCain voted with the Bush administration 95% of the time. So far in this election year, 2008, he has given his vote to Bush 100% of the time.

Obama’s idea of “change”? It’s a return to the same old Democratic Party apparatus and leftovers from previous Democratic administrations. Take one look at his closest advisers, starting with his key economic adviser, Jason Furman, who has close ties to Robert Rubin, Clinton’s Treasury secretary who moved on to head Citigroup. The AFL-CIO describes Furman’s views as “focusing too much on corporate America and not enough on workers.” Among other things, he applauded Wal-Mart – whose anti-labor policies are well-known – calling it a model for other businesses to follow. Or look at Obama’s foreign policy team. Most of the 300 and some “experts” come right out of the Clinton administration – which, according to the Wall Street Journal, committed troops to more parts of the globe than any other administration since World War II. It also laid the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq.

The media pretends that candidates must move to the right to get elected. Not true! Above all, not this year. Why has there been so much enthusiasm and attention during this year’s election campaign if not for the popular hope that this year’s candidates represented a change from politics as usual in Washington? Only one quarter of the population supports Bush and his policies – how could anyone pretend that it is necessary now to start embracing many of those same policies to get elected?

Perhaps McCain feels he must move to the right to reinvigorate that coalition of well-off petty bourgeois and right-wing religious fundamentalists who have been the base of the Republican party for years. But Obama’s move to the right can only harm his chances, since a Democrat depends on votes from the working class and poorer parts of the population to get elected.

In any case, both candidates are junking their earlier pose of a “new politics” in order to prepare for assuming the presidency, getting ready to carry out the policies that the bourgeoisie wants – and to do it without having to face a population in which they had cultivated too many illusions. This is especially true on the issues that matter most to the population today: the war, health care and the economy.

Both Agree: Extend the U.S. War on Iraq into Afghanistan

The 2006 mid-year elections were strongly marked by the population’s dismay over the war in Iraq, and it cost the Republican Party dearly. McCain and Obama both became more vocally critical of the Bush administration, even if they seemed to be staking out nearly opposite positions on the war.

McCain criticized the administration for how it was carrying out the war, and particularly for not sending as many troops as the military had asked for. Thus, when the Bush administration moved at the beginning of 2007 to increase the U.S. force in Iraq, McCain put himself forward as the strongest defender of this so-called “surge.” Today, claiming the “surge” has dramatically changed the situation, McCain claims the credit for pushing the administration to carry it out. In other words he was more of a “hawk” than Bush.

Obama, on the other hand, faced with the growing opposition to the war in 2005-2006, began to pose as an opponent of the war “from the beginning. ” In reality, his early opposition boils down to little more than one speech he made in 2002 in Chicago before the war started – a very timid speech, characterized by his insistence that he was not against all wars, or even most wars. He was against invading Iraq because it would be “a stupid war,” which interfered with the wars the U.S. should be waging! And by mid-2004, he was giving practical support to this “stupid” war. When running for the Senate, he was asked by the Chicago Tribune what differentiated Bush’s policy on Iraq and his own. Obama’s answer, July 24, 2004: “There’s not much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage. The difference, in my mind, is who’s in a position to execute.” And, when he got to the Senate, he voted for the very first Iraq funding bill to come up and every subsequent one, right up to the point he officially started his presidential campaign – hardly the anti-war candidate he made himself out to be at the beginning of the primaries.

Today, both Obama and McCain effectively line up behind Bush, as they each prepare to take over as “commander in chief.” They may dispute with each other, but both pretend, as Bush does, that the situation in Iraq has “improved.” McCain regularly gives credit to the surge. Obama credits the “new tactics” devised by General Petraeus and the “brilliant performance” of U.S. troops.

You would think they were talking about a board game rather than a war that has already killed nearly a million Iraqis and displaced five million more, the majority of whom were driven out of their homes in ethnic cleansing campaigns that were the hallmark of the “surge” – or of the “new tactics” devised by General Petraeus. To say, as Bush, McCain and Obama all do, that the level of violence is “lower” today in Iraq is like saying that the graveyard is quieter.

The situation for the population of Iraq is catastrophic – and it is not over, no matter who wins the U.S. election. Nor is it over for U.S. troops. McCain quite openly calls for continuing the war on Iraq. Obama, while repeating his pledge to bring the troops out 16 months after coming into office, now hastens always to say that he would leave a “residual force” in Iraq. And lately his advisers have been informing the media that this “residual force” could amount to 50,000 troops!

And that’s only the half of it. McCain and Obama both would take whatever troops were spared from Iraq to expand the war in Afghanistan. Obama has said he would send at least two additional combat brigades, an unspecified number of troops needed for support, plus additional troops from other NATO countries, plus “more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region [with Pakistan].” McCain has said he would send three additional brigades, counting NATO troops, plus money to double the size of the Afghan army, plus pressure to unify the military command in Afghanistan. Obama goes so far as to say that if the Pakistani government doesn’t do what the U.S. requires in the tribal regions, he would send U.S. troops into Pakistan. In reality, McCain and Obama are simply proposing to do more of what Bush has already begun to do: in the last year, the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan increased from 26,000 to 34,000, with more increases on the way, as the military continues to announce more extended tours for Marine units scheduled to leave Afghanistan.

Today, the U.S. government imposes the rule of U.S. corporations around the world, under the pretext of fighting terrorism, just as in earlier decades it did so under the pretext of fighting “communism.” Of course, neither the Democrat nor the Republican question that. They both, as Bush did, dredge up the “terrorist threat” to prepare the U.S. population to be both cannon fodder in more wars and executioner of other peoples throughout the Middle East.

As a Wall Street Journal opinion piece somewhat cynically commented, June 2, 2008: “Want more George W. Bush foreign policy? Elect John McCain – or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Regardless of who wins in November, the current foreign policy will live on in the next White House. None of the main candidates has disavowed the war on terror. Each has called Mr. Bush tactically deficient. But the debate over the war on terror is over how, where and when. The candidates have all argued they would do a better job of fighting it.”

Reforming Health Care in the Interest of the Insurance Industry

“Our nation must make a promise, a solemn promise. We must pledge to help our citizens find affordable medical care.... These reforms are the act of a vibrant and compassionate government.”

Who said that? In fact, it was Bush when he was pushing the Medicare D “reform” through, but it just as easily could have been either McCain or Obama today, because they make the same kind of grandiose statements about reforming the medical care system in the interests of the population – even while using that system to provide more money to big business, just as Bush did with Medicare D.

McCain says he will simplify the system, making it possible for everyone to have insurance – then offers a $2500 “rebate” to every individual and $5000 to every family to pay for their own medical insurance, to be paid to the insurance companies. In fact, it’s clearly a way to make it easier for employers who currently offer medical insurance to get rid of it. All the more so, since workers who fight to keep their employer-based insurance would discover that they would be penalized, with their benefits counted like wages on their W-2 tax forms. Finally, McCain offers to let individuals put part of their rebates into “health savings accounts” if they buy “less expensive” insurance coverage. McCain’s “reform” is nothing but a way to put the responsibility on every individual to come up with the money to cover their own medical expenses – while leaving in place a system that prices medical care and medical coverage out of the reach of ordinary working people, and even of a great many middle class people. It’s obvious that the rebates don’t begin to cover the costs of medical insurance for a family, not to mention all the other medical expenses. They are simply another Trojan horse attacking existing social programs.

Yes, McCain, like Obama, promises to “control costs.” But many of their cuts of so-called “unnecessary” costs would harm the population: for example, reductions in Medicaid payments for long-term care. Another example: both would cap settlements that hospitals or doctors have to pay when their sloppy work harms someone – as though it were outrageous settlements, rather than outrageous medical errors, that are the problem. As for other high costs, both propose to encourage “competition” in the medical insurance industry, claiming this would make the industry itself lower its own costs. Bush made the same claim about competition controlling drug prices when he was pushing Medicare D – and we see how well that worked!

Obama’s major proposal is to legally require all parents to get medical coverage for their children. They could get coverage through an employer-based plan, if they still had it; they could buy private insurance if they have the money; they could register for medicaid or SCHIP if their income is so low they qualify. Everyone else would have to buy insurance from a new “public insurance plan,” to be administered, of course, by private insurance companies.

While leaving the current expensive system in place, Obama would require people who can’t find the money to buy medical insurance to find it anyway! Just like McCain, he puts the responsibility on the individual, without changing the circumstances that make it impossible for most working people to buy insurance today.

Of course, concrete details about McCain’s and Obama’s plans are missing – just as they were in 2003 when the Medicare D “reform” was passed. But, just as with Medicare D, McCain’s and Obama’s proposals both clearly offer more benefits to employers whose workers demand medical coverage, and they offer a bigger boondoggle to the medical insurance industry. Neither does anything to touch the existing market-based system. They just reinforce the provision of health care by profit-making entities – which is at the root of the enormous inefficiency and lack of access to medical care that exists today in the United States.

Economic Programs as a Way to Subsidize Big Business

Right after the end of the primaries, Obama announced he would focus his campaign on the economy. And McCain regularly makes speeches about it. Both campaigns feature “Economic Plans” prominently on their websites.

But which economy? Plans for which class?

Obama and McCain would both tinker once again with the tax code, giving tax credits or exemptions, which each claims would lower the total tax bill of working Americans. But these are the kind of promises that get made with every new tax bill, with what results we should all be familiar with by now. Every tax cut pushed through by the Bush administration was justified by a similar claim. No matter what was said about providing tax relief for the working population, every tax cut served to reduce the share of the overall tax burden paid by the corporations and the wealthy.

This time also, the largest share of the tax cuts would go to the corporations and the wealthy. With McCain, this is more obvious, since from the beginning he has said he would extend the Bush tax cuts set to expire in 2010 – tax cuts which provided 66% of the benefits to the wealthiest 20% of the population.

Obama, by contrast, began his campaign promising to tax the wealthy, while cutting taxes for those most in need. But he has already “refined” that position quite a bit – changing his definition of those most in need to include people making a quarter of a million dollars a year!

But the real benefit for the wealthy in Obama’s tax plans rests on the multitude of special tax cuts for various businesses – for example for businesses producing ethanol, “clean coal,” wind energy, or hybrid vehicles, or for big companies engaged in “advanced manufacturing,” or for “small businesses” – and that barely begins to scratch the list of all the various ways he proposes new tax breaks for business. Like other Democrats before him, Obama widely adds special tax breaks to specific businesses, making the tax code ever more complex so that no one has any idea of who is getting what – other than the wealthy who hire accountants to get it for them.

What about the real problems facing the working population – like prices and jobs, for example?

Bring up the high prices of food, energy and housing, and Obama and McCain both use them as the pretext for offering more government money, in the form of subsidies or tax breaks, to the big corporations. McCain spoke about high oil prices, then offered to open up off-shore drilling to the big oil companies. Obama denounced him for it, only to turn around and say he might “compromise” and do the same. McCain said he would impose a three-month gas-tax holiday – without requiring the oil companies to lower their prices at the pump! Obama offered another tax incentive package like Bush’s recent ones. Those incentives have already been more than eaten up by the increasing inflation of the last few months. Neither Obama nor McCain even talks about reining in the massive price increases.

What about jobs? Both candidates propose the same remedy: give more tax cuts to the corporations, under the pretext that this will encourage them to create jobs. That’s nothing but what Bush has been saying for the last seven years – and how many jobs did his tax cuts help create? Jobs, no. Those tax cuts simply lined the pockets of the biggest corporations and of the wealthy who benefit from their investments in these corporations.

No, McCain and Obama are not talking about creating jobs – and sometimes they even admit it, even if indirectly.

McCain, for example, said it might be necessary to offer GM a government sponsored bail-out based on the provisions of the Chrysler bail-out of 1980. That bail-out prominently featured the government’s demand that workers at Chrysler give up concessions in their wages and benefits. It was, in fact, the first open demand for concessions in the auto industry. And it laid out the path that the Big 3 would follow in the nearly three decades since: reducing wages and benefits through various schemes, while cutting jobs ferociously.

Obama, for his part, recently praised Ford for its newest “restructuring plan,” claiming as Ford did that it would create jobs in the U.S. If there is anything a Ford restructuring plan won’t create, it’s jobs. Every “restructuring” the big auto companies have carried out has focused on reorganizing work and the production process in order to eliminate jobs. The same is true in every other big industry – which can be seen by comparing today’s employment and production figures to those of a decade or so ago.

Obama and McCain’s “economic plans” are only more of the same that has made the population pay for the vast increase in wealth of this tiny minority that owns, runs and benefits from the biggest companies in the country.

Don’t Go Out of the Voting Booth with Illusions

It’s understandable that many workers, white and black, want to vote against the people who have held office during this disastrous last period, especially against the Republicans – if for no other reason than to express their anger.

And it should come as no surprise in a country as profoundly racist as the United States that a big majority of the black population would want to vote for Obama. His candidacy represents, at least symbolically, the falling of barriers standing in the way of the black population. There is an enthusiasm for the idea that there could finally be an African-American president. As many people said: “It’s time, it’s past time, it’s overdue.”

But Obama’s candidacy does not open the door for the large majority of the black population who are working class or poor.

In the first place, to say that is to read the pages of history backwards. Doors were not opened by Obama, but for him. His candidacy was paid for by the bitter and angry struggles of generations of black people in the streets of this country – struggles that radically uprooted the legalized system of Jim Crow.

Obama does not represent the interests of the black working class population. In fact, he reproaches the ordinary black population with the accusation that they themselves carry an important part of the responsibility for their situation – a situation marked by severe poverty, high unemployment and lack of educational opportunities.

He blames the victims of poverty and misery for the poverty and misery in which the society has mired them. It is his way of reassuring the bourgeoisie and the reactionary petty bourgeoisie, white and black, that he is not the “black” candidate held hostage by “black special interests.” It’s why, for example, he distances himself from even the social-democratic-style reformists, like Jesse Jackson, whom the bourgeoisie has always been a little wary of. By his very words, his very campaign, Obama makes it crystal clear ahead of time that the vast majority of the black population, especially its poorest layers, should expect nothing, absolutely nothing from him if he is elected.

Whether Obama or McCain is elected, the wars will continue – and grow wider. They both say it. The corporations and the wealthy who own them will continue to be given hand-outs by the government – and they both say that. Neither represents the interests of the working class.

The big bourgeoisie certainly has no fears about either of them. The bourgeoisie know they will be served by either one. That’s why they have been ready to finance both. If they have given significantly more to Obama up to this point than they have to McCain, it’s not because they distrust McCain. Perhaps they think Obama can do a better job of diverting the population. In any case, whichever one is elected will be their servant.

Workers must have their own policy and they must find the way to carry out their own policy, which means to organize their own struggles, no matter who is elected.