It was only a few months ago that a triumphant George W. Bush stood on the flight deck of the USS Lincoln and proclaimed the war in Iraq was “over.” From the start of his presidency, Bush Junior has been determined (indeed obsessed) to avoid the fate of his father, who won the first Gulf War in 1991 only to go down in defeat against Bill Clinton in 1992 because of the floundering domestic economy. Clearly, this Bush hoped that the combination of a quick, dramatic victory in Iraq and the latest tax cut package would spur economic recovery and ensure victory in 2004.
But this scenario is already beginning to unravel. The quagmire in Iraq, the mounting American casualties, the increasing cost of the occupation, and the revelations about the lies told by Bush and Co. in the build-up to war are all leading to increasing disquiet in large sections of the population.
But Bush’s main problem is the absence of any real economic recovery, and especially the disastrous loss of jobs during his presidency to date. More than 2.5 million jobs have been lost in the US since 2000, and unless there is a truly dramatic turnaround in the next year, Bush will have presided over the worst phase of job destruction since Herbert Hoover.
The analogy with Hoover may turn out to be even more apt if the economy – rather than sputtering along as it currently is – experiences a sharp downturn. This could happen for one of several reasons, including: the bursting of the mortgage refinancing bubble, which has played a big role in sustaining consumer spending; a sharp fall in the value of the dollar, which would wreak havoc in international financial markets; a “deflationary spiral” where prices drop sharply, leading to a big drop in profits, mass layoffs, etc.
In short, George Bush faces serious and potentially accumulating problems abroad and at home, which could undermine his position.
But that is not much reassurance when one looks at the damage which has already been caused by this extremely reactionary president and the Republicans who have firm control over both houses of Congress. Millions of workers, women, young people, and people of color have become increasingly alarmed by the massive tax cuts for the rich, the ensuing record federal budget deficit, the devastating attacks on environmental protections and civil liberties, and the racist, anti-woman, anti-gay agenda of the “Christian right” which has such a large influence on this administration.
The Conservative Agenda
What is less widely understood is that all of this is part of a much broader “conservative agenda” of the right wing of the Republican Party that currently dominates the party as a whole. Their “grand ambition,” as one commentator called it recently, is nothing less than to destroy what remains of the limited welfare state created in the US in the 20th century as a result of the pressure of the working class.
This grand ambition includes a whole number of specific goals. For example, the conservatives want to remove any element of a graduated income tax. This would be replaced, in their dreams, by a flat tax or, even better, by a stiff sales tax. They want to remove all taxes on dividends, which they describe as “double taxation.” And they are also considering replacing all pension funds with individual tax-exempt “lifetime savings accounts.”
In addition, the conservatives intend to transfer the administration of as many social programs as possible from the federal government to state governments, and then steadily reduce subsidies to states. Ultimately, if states can’t pay for the programs, then people will be left to fend for themselves or depend on charity. This is connected to another central goal, which is to “restore” the role of churches and the family in society to what it was a hundred years ago.
The conservatives want to cut back regulation of businesses to the absolute minimum, and, in one extreme proposal, to actually make the government pay corporations for any loss of profits due to new regulations. The conservative ideologues of course don’t believe that all of this will be accomplished by 2004, but they believe that they have made a lot of progress under Bush Jr.
Their most dramatic successes have been on the tax front. Since Bush has taken office, tax cuts for the rich have been enacted worth $1.7 trillion over the next decade.
On other fronts, Congress has already transferred the administration of Medicaid to the states, so that many states, facing their worst fiscal crisis since the 1930’s, are making eligibility more difficult and cutting people off the rolls. People are literally dying because of this.
And the Republicans have moved a long way towards implementing their “school voucher” program which, under the guise of providing parents with “choice,” is really a way of channeling public money towards private schools.
The two areas where conservatives definitely want to see increased government spending is for the military, so they can pursue further imperialist adventures abroad, and for domestic surveillance. The latter is supposedly aimed at rooting out terrorists, but it is already clear that the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security can and will be used against any serious dissent, including trade union activists, people fighting racism, or socialists.
This is a deeply reactionary agenda, and socialists agree completely with those who say that a key priority of progressive activists and the labor movement in the next period must be to build a movement to defeat Bush and the conservatives.
How to Defeat Bush
The real question is how this movement will be built and what its strategy will be. Many people now argue that the key thing is to defeat Bush in the 2004 elections, and that virtually any Democrat would be better. The key problem with this view is that it actually underestimates the threat posed by the conservative agenda.
Their “grand ambition” is not simply the brainchild of a few right-wing kooks, although there are plenty of those around Bush. Rather, it broadly reflects the determination of the ruling class since the end of the post-World War II boom to restore corporate profitability in a period of economic stagnation and possible slump, by sharply reducing taxation on the rich and drastically cutting expenditure on social benefits for working people, like pensions, health care, etc.
While the Bush White House may be the most thoroughly corporate-dominated in modern times, the Democrats are also a party of Corporate America to the core – despite the populist rhetoric they may use between now and the elections. Once in office they, like Clinton before them, will bow to the pressure of their corporate masters.
Bush is actually picking up where Democratic President Clinton left off. Clinton presided over the greatest polarization of wealth in America since the 1930’s. It was Clinton who aggressively pushed through NAFTA, the WTO, and the destruction of Welfare.
The Bush Administration is continuing this agenda but attempting to dramatically step up the pace and scale of attacks. Bush’s policies and brazen tactics are even alarming sections of the ruling establishment who have raised concerns about the political and social consequences.
All previous historical experience shows that the only way to defeat a determined offensive of the ruling class is through social struggle, and that the key force which can challenge the corporations and their political stooges is the working class.
There must be an immediate struggle against cutbacks in social programs at the local level, as well as a broad movement to resist further attacks on civil liberties, the environment, etc. The movement must use the weapons of mass demonstrations and strike action, first of all at the local level.
The leadership of the trade unions must be shaken up, and there will have to be a return to the methods of class struggle which were used to build the unions in the first place. If the labor movement begins to show that it is determined to resist this new ruling class offensive, it will win the support of wide sections of the population and also find it much easier to recruit and rebuild its ranks.
The alternative to a determined fight will be enormous defeats for working people, whether Bush stays or is replaced by a Democrat. And if there is a new movement of social resistance, it begs the question: why should working people not build their own political party to fight down the line for their interests, and to break with the corporate parties once and for all?