The left turn in US politics

A few months ago, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton would have seemed the least likely Democratic presidential candidate to lead a congressional charge to repeal the authority of Congress bestowed in 2002 upon George Bush to wage war on Iraq.

Indeed, ever since she laid down residential roots in Westchester County in 2000 (the first step in a calculated plan for a 2008 presidential run), Clinton staked her reputation as a founding member of the "National Security Democrats" — a congressional caucus including presidential rivals Joe Biden and John Edwards — that embraced the Bush Doctrine's strategy of pre-emptive warfare and the conservative legacy of Republican Ronald Reagan.

As recently as March, Clinton stubbornly refused to apologise for voting to authorise the war in 2002, in stark contrast to Edwards (who apologised) and the since-elected Senator Barack Obama (who at the time was still protesting the US invasion of Iraq, and has nothing to apologise for).

Clinton's handlers appear to have finally recognised that the angry electorate that swept the Democrats into a congressional majority last November is demanding opposition to the war as a litmus test for supporting 2008 candidates.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal opinion poll released on April 25 showed both Obama and Edwards closing in on Clinton's lead. While she remained 12 points ahead of Obama in March, her lead shrank to just 5% in April, with only a 36-31% margin. Support for Edwards, just 15% in March, rose to 20% in April.

"Triangulation" — a strategy perfected by President Bill Clinton as he stole the Republican Party's conservative platform in the 1990s — is quickly receding into a historical anomaly for the Democratic Party. This strategy failed miserably for John Kerry's candidacy in 2004, in a ridiculous attempt to straddle the pro- and anti-war camps by declaring, "I did vote for [the war] before I voted against it".

By the first 2008 Democratic debate on April 26, Hillary Clinton was riding a decidedly anti-war horse. "The Congress has voted, as of today, to end this war", she declared. "And now we can only hope that the president will listen." Last week, Clinton joined West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd in sponsoring legislation repealing Senate authorisation for the Iraq war.

"We've definitely all noticed a shift to the left — and not just the left, the complete far left", observed Republican National Committee spokesman Chris Taylor. "You have somebody like Dennis Kucinich, who, three years ago, seemed off his rocker, and [at the April 26 debate], all the candidates were trying to get left of him."

This shift, however, is not limited to opportunist Democrats holding their fingers to the wind. Bush supporters are also jumping off his sinking ship.

The Center for Responsive Politics in Washington recently reported that Obama and Clinton have taken in more than US$750,000 in individual contributions from defecting Bush donors. The defectors include Tom Bernstein, a Yale University alumni who co-owned the Texas Rangers baseball team with Bush — contributing $50,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2004 — who now supports Obama.

Another is Matthew Dowd, Bush's chief campaign strategist in 2004. According to the British Sunday Times, Dowd is "disillusioned with the war in Iraq and the president's 'my way or the highway' style of leadership". Even neo-con Robert Kagan, cofounder of the Project for the New American Century, recently commented in the Washington Post that Obama is "pure John Kennedy".

Most presidential candidates may not yet recognise the emerging — and seismic — shift in US mainstream politics, precipitated from below. But opinion polls clearly show that mass consciousness is far left of centre, as economist Paul Krugman noted on March 26 in the New York Times: "According to the American National Election Studies, in 1994, the year the Republicans began their 12-year control of Congress, those who favored smaller government had the edge, by 36 to 27. By 2004, however, those in favor of bigger government had a 43-to-20 lead.

"And public opinion seems to have taken a particularly strong turn in favor of universal health care. Gallup reports that 69 percent of the public believes that 'it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage', up from 59 percent in 2000.

"The main force driving this shift to the left is probably rising income inequality. According to Pew, there has recently been a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who agree with the statement that 'the rich get richer while the poor get poorer'."

In a CBS News Poll conducted on April 9-12, 66% of respondents said they "disapprove" of the way Bush is handling the situation with Iraq.

The current "race to the left" among both Democrats and Republicans can only be understood in its historic significance. The political pendulum is swinging left at a rate not seen since the 1960s, when Senator Robert Kennedy, who built his political career as a rabid anti-communist during the 1950s McCarthy era, resurfaced as an anti-war presidential candidate in the late 1960s.

The Republicans and Democrats have historically coexisted as the twin parties of capital. Big business prefers the Republicans' "Plan A" to aggressively assert its self-interest. But it can always rely on the Democrats' "Plan B" to salvage its interests when popular dissent threatens to revolt.

The Democrats' historic mission is to absorb social anger into its electoral folds. Today, the Democratic Party is fulfilling this mission — but this also opens up the possibility for further reform. Yesterday's "do-nothing" Democrats have evolved into a team of reformers, dragged kicking and screaming by an angry electorate, but responsive to further pressure from below.

The Democrats' current shift leftward should therefore be viewed cynically. But there is also a discernable difference between "Plan A" and "Plan B", which merits acknowledgement.

Those who seek social change should not rely on politicians of either party, but at the same time, should recognise that mainstream politics is shifting leftward due to pressure from below. That pressure must continue for real reforms to be achieved.

[Reprinted from US Socialist Worker,]