MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 16

International Socialist Review, February–March 2001


The Shape of Things to Come


From International Socialist Review, Issue 16, February–March 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


Not everyone who went to George W. Bush’s inauguration on January 20 was there to welcome him. Some 20,000 to 30,000 people came to Washington, D.C., to take part in several protests organized that day. Thousands also protested in other cities across the country.

The main themes of the protest – the selection rather than election of Bush; the decisive role of money rather than popular sentiment in elections; and the rejection of a return to Reaganism – are themes that are not likely to fade away. While Congressional Democrats have climbed over themselves to offer Bush an olive branch, the anger at the bottom is already palpable.

Whatever conciliatory rhetoric he may have used before the inauguration, Bush has made it clear since then that he is going to try to push through a number of right-wing initiatives.

He began his first day in office by banning funding to overseas family planning organizations that mention the word “abortion.” Bush then ordered the Food and Drug Administration to review its approval of the abortion-inducing drug RU-486, with an eye toward finding an excuse to remove it from the market. Vice President Cheney told NBC’s Meet the Press that the new administration looks forward to finding “ways to reduce the incidence of abortion” – starting with pushing through a ban on late-term abortions. “We share a great goal,” Bush told a group of anti-abortion protesters the Monday after his inauguration, “to work toward a day when every child is welcomed in life and protected by law.” He has also announced that he may instruct his Justice Department to explore the possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade.

Bush has also launched a number of other initiatives. His “school reform” plan pushes school vouchers and standardized testing. This is really a plan for privatization. It punishes public schools that are failing due to lack of resources by paying parents to put their kids in private schools – leaving the poorest children to rot in crumbling public education. He unveiled a “faith-based” plan to give money to religious organizations to provide social services.

The new administration intends to open the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Bush’s recent comments on the California energy crisis, in which he blamed pollution controls for energy shortages, indicates his willingness to use anything to promote more deregulation on behalf of his wealthy backers.

At the top of the president’s list is the $1.6 trillion tax cut that will benefit the richest Americans. Bush has used the deepening economic slowdown – and Fed Chair Alan Greenspan’s thumbs up – to gather support for his handout to the rich.

Finally, Bush’s record on the death penalty in Texas tells us that he is unlikely to let up on executions or the “tough-on-crime” trend on Capitol Hill.

Bush’s goals are reflected in his cabinet appointments (see the article on page 10 of this issue). They are partly a gift to the right (John Ashcroft, Tommy Thompson); partly a gift to weapons producers (Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell); partly a gift to extracting industries that want to pollute more (Gale Norton, Christie Whitman); and generally a gift to major corporations, especially oil (Dick Cheney, Don Evans, Paul O’Neill).

A Barron’s article written before the inauguration pointed out that Bush had already “presented the business community with the keys to the city.” Bush’s transition teams were packed with representatives from big business. Gale Norton’s Department of the Interior, for example, was “jammed with representatives of energy, mining and paper companies.” The chairman of Enron, the energy and commodity company, sat on the team advising Energy Secretary nominee Spencer Abraham.

Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, is pressing ahead with the Star Wars missile-defense system – despite criticism from Russia, China, and even Europe. This never successfully tested system is meant to protect the U.S. from ballistic missile attacks from “rogue” states such as North Korea, but it is clearly targeting China and Russia. Rumsfeld has indicated that the U.S. is perfectly willing to scrap the existing Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia in order to pursue U.S. military aims. The Star Wars plan is going to stoke a new arms race, as the U.S. spends billions more dollars on top of an already bloated military budget, encouraging Russia and Europe to follow suit.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has already announced his intention of reinvigorating the sanctions against Iraq, which could be a prelude to more military action. Whatever precisely unfolds, it is clear that there is going to be an increase in international tensions, exacerbated by the economic downturn, between the U.S., Europe, and Russia.

It should be kept in mind, however, that these developments do not represent a sharp break from past practice. Clinton gave support to a more limited Star Wars system, and Gore’s running mate, Sen. Joseph Leiberman, recently told a meeting of top European officials and defense specialists that there was consensus in Washington for some kind of missile-defense system. The difference is one of degree, not substance.

Tepid Democrats

The response of House and Senate Democrats to Bush’s rightward lurch has been more or less to cave in under the guise of “bipartisanship.” While many ordinary voters are enraged over the election, “the fury can be hard to detect in Washington,” wrote the New York Times. This isn’t surprising. Before the inauguration, Gore’s concession speech called on Americans to accept Bush in the name of a strong, united America. Leading Democrats feared an ongoing constitutional crisis that might throw the legitimacy of the entire political system into question more than accepting a stolen election. The press has followed in lockstep. A New York Times editorial written the day after the inauguration proclaimed that Bush could “lift the nation to a new era of inclusion and social justice.”

The result is that, aside from some saber rattling around the appointment of arch-right-winger Ashcroft for attorney general – a man who admires the old Confederacy and defied a federal voluntary school desegregation order while he held the same job in Missouri – Bush’s cabinet appointments have sailed through without a hitch. Gale Norton, the hard anti-environmentalist who is now secretary of the interior, sailed through with only half of the Democrats voting against. Russ Feingold, a backer of campaign finance reform and a national moratorium on the death penalty, cast the deciding vote in committee that brought Ashcroft’s confirmation to a Senate vote. Ashcroft was guaranteed to win confirmation as a result of the defection of eight Democrats to his side. Sen. Edward Kennedy, after threatening a possible filibuster against Ashcroft’s nomination, backed off in the end. The claim that the opposition to Ashcroft – without trying to scuttle his nomination – was meant to be a “shot over the bow” rings hollow. It comes across more as a toothless threat made in order to appease the millions of Democratic Party supporters who are livid over the stolen election and want to see something done.

The behavior of the Democrats shows the effect that years of adopting “Republican Lite” policies has had on the Democratic Party. Under the domination of the Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton’s presidency has shifted the political goalposts further and further to the right. After all, Joe Leiberman was also in favor of “school choice.” Gore pandered to the right during his campaign, emphasizing his willingness to sign a ban on late-term abortions. Clinton used liberal rhetoric to implement anticrime measures and the gutting of welfare – something even Reagan wasn’t able to get away with.

Not the 1980s

The rightward drift of the Democrats has helped to create the environment in Washington that makes Bush think he can bring back Reaganism. But this is not going to be a repeat of the 1980s – for a number of reasons. For one, Bush does not have even the slender mandate Reagan had in 1980. It should not be forgotten that he lost the popular vote in this election and gained the presidency only by stealing it through of voter fraud in Florida. Bush was helped by five Supreme Court Justices who prevented a Florida recount on the grounds the country had suddenly run out of time for an accurate count. There are literally millions of people, especially Black Americans, who do not believe that Bush gained the presidency legitimately. Secondly, consciousness among workers is to the left of official politics and has been for quite some time. This is reflected not only in the fact that the combined Gore/Nader vote exceeded Bush’s vote by millions. It is shown by the fact that according to a Business Week poll last summer, almost three-quarters of the population think corporations have too much power. It is also reflected in polls showing that 67 percent of the population support Roe v. Wade.

And in spite of the gushing bipartisanship at the top over Bush’s education plan, opinion polls have shown that a majority of people oppose school vouchers. Seventy percent of voters overturned a voucher initiative in California last November.

Thirdly, the economy is not what it was in the 1980s or 1990s. The promise of “trickle-down economics” has been exposed for what it is: a massive redistribution of wealth from those at the bottom to a tiny handful at the top.

The mainstream organizations that could bring together widespread opposition may be upset at Bush’s win, but their response has been muted. The National Organization for Women (NOW) called a demonstration at the inauguration, but they did not organize for it. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO, Jesse Jackson Sr., and the NAACP mobilized for an anti-inauguration protest – not in Washington, D.C., but in Tallahassee, Fla. Clearly, well-built demonstrations for civil rights, workers’ rights, and abortion rights could bring out hundreds of thousands of people.

There is going to have to be mobilization in order to resist Bush’s aggressive and overconfident offensive.

But organizations like NOW are more used to lobbying than fighting – to little effect. They’ve spent their time over the past several years backing Clinton, politically and financially, as he moved rightward. Instead of resisting the steady erosion of abortion, state by state, NOW remained a passive tail of the Clinton White House.

The muffled opposition of the Democrats is masking the depths of anger and opposition at the bottom. What is remarkable is that in spite of this, the immediate response against Bush has been strong. Most people found their own way to the inauguration-day protests individually and in small groups, from campuses, communities and workplaces. The protests involved angry working-class Blacks who feel their votes were once again stolen, as well as student veterans of the Nader campaign and thousands of peopl1 radicalized by the antiglobalization movement.

The deregulation crisis in California raises severe doubts about the wonders of the free market at the very moment that Bush appears poised to go on a deregulation binge – starting possibly with plans to at least partially privatize Social Security and to introduce a voucher system to replace Medicare spending. This attack will come in the face of overwhelming evidence that HMOs are abandoning Medicare patients.

A precise reading of the future isn’t possible. But there is clearly already an active opposition to Bush – and there is every reason to think that this opposition will grow. Every effort should be made to assist, accelerate, and deepen the mood of resistance that exists widely and to help turn it from a mood to a movement, from individual opposition to organized action. Bush clearly thinks that if he hits hard from day one, he can disarm and roll over the Democrats. That may be true, but in doing so he may well stir a much bigger force into active opposition to his administration. Combined with the effects of the coming economic downturn and the blow this has delivered to the ideology of the free market, the next few years will not be a return to Reaganism and a “one-sided class war” but may well prove a two-sided class war. The high point of the “idiot son’s” presidency may well end up being his coronation on January 20.

Last updated on 27 July 2021