Blowback! Is Bush’s Free Ride Coming to an End?

George Bush is in trouble. A few months ago, the capture of Saddam Hussein temporarily boosted his domestic popularity. But the continuing and worsening quagmire in Iraq, the jobless “recovery,” the healthcare crisis, and the ballooning federal deficit are again taking a toll on his poll numbers and putting him on the defensive.

A Time/CNN poll in early February found that only 44% thought Bush was “a leader you can trust,” and a number of polls now show him neck-and-neck with, or trailing, Democratic frontrunner John Kerry.

Probably the single most damaging development for Bush has been the report by David Kay. Kay headed the team searching for Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” that Bush said represented an immediate danger to the United States and which, along with Saddam’s alleged Al Qaeda links, were the pretext for launching the war last March. Kay not only found no WMDs, but declared that WMDs were unlikely ever to be found. This led to a spate of media commentary about the “faulty intelligence” given to Bush.

Of course, the truth is Bush and his team demanded that every scrap of information – no matter how flimsy – that supported the WMD line be gathered to justify a war they had already decided on and that had nothing to do with WMDs. As former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill confirmed in a recent book, Bush and the neo-conservatives were hell-bent on war with Iraq from the time they came into office. September 11 just gave them the excuse.

In the wake of the Kay report, CIA chief George Tenet gave a public speech defending himself, and then Colin Powell suggested that if he had known the intelligence was “faulty,” he might not have supported the war. This finally forced Bush to appear on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and try to explain why it didn’t matter that he had blatantly lied about the cause for war. In reality, Bush has yet to feel the full impact of the Kay report.

For even if Bush manages some temporary damage limitation, the war in Iraq, which he had thought would be his ticket to a second term, is increasingly a weight around his neck. Not only are young American soldiers being killed and maimed on a daily basis, but the plans to turn over nominal control of Iraq to a pliant regime are becoming less and less credible. Chaos is increasing, not lessening, and with it the real possibility of an ethnic civil war in Iraq with US troops caught in the middle.

Bush’s other central problem is the economy. While there are many reports of economic growth, this is clearly a recovery mainly for the rich. It has done nothing for the nine million unemployed and the millions of others who fear losing their jobs. On top of this, Bush’s recently released budget proposal would create a record $521 billion deficit and, in an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes, he didn’t include any estimate for the cost of the continued occupation of Iraq!

Even some conservative columnists have taken to criticizing Bush on a range of issues, which would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. Fox News’ notorious Bill O’Reilly, for example, actually apologized for having accepted and promoted the WMD line.

But before one concludes that Bush is in free-fall, there are several factors that must be borne in mind. First of all, the media focus on the primaries has given a lot of airtime to anti-Bush arguments from a reinvigorated Democratic Party. Secondly, Bush has a $200 million war chest that he has barely started to use. The support the Republican Party is receiving from Corporate America is still at record levels, even if many in the ruling class are certainly having their doubts about Bush. Finally, it’s a long way to November and a lot can happen, including further terrorist attacks.

As socialists, we would certainly welcome Bush’s political implosion. His regime took power in a cold coup and since then has relentlessly pursued the most reactionary agenda of any presidency in living memory – and that’s saying a lot. But as we explain elsewhere in this issue, this does not make us feel any warmer towards the alternative on offer, namely John Kerry and America’s other big-business party, the Democrats.

We agree with the millions of working people, African Americans, Latinos, women, and youth who see Bush as an “unelected president” who cares nothing about them and only serves the rich. Many will feel it is necessary to vote for the “lesser evil” Kerry in order to get rid of Bush. However, as the socialist Eugene Debs pointed out a long time ago, you don’t just vote against somebody, you also vote for somebody.

And when you vote for the Democrats, no matter what populist rhetoric they may currently employ, you are voting for the party that brought us the Vietnam War, NAFTA, and the “end of welfare as we know it.” More to the point, John Kerry will not bring the troops home from Iraq and will not make the massive investment in job creation, healthcare, and education that people in this country really need.

That’s why we are urging people to vote for Ralph Nader as a way of expressing opposition to the occupation and the corporate agenda.

But our struggle is about far more than just casting a vote on November 2. The key task is to build mass struggles in the streets and in the workplaces to resist the occupation of Iraq and the war at home against workers and our rights. Such a movement can be the beginning of a struggle for fundamental change, in which thousands and then millions here and around the world can be won to the ideas of democratic socialism.

Justice #38, March-April 2004