Published on Wednesday, November 1, 2006 by the Guardian / UK
Let Us Hope Americans Seize Their Chance to Hobble George Bush
Next Tuesday's elections in the US cannot, alas, remove the president. But they can change the political terms of trade
by Jonathan Freedland
First, let's lay down the mother of all caveats. The conventional wisdom says Democrats are about to win control of the House of Representatives and could well take the Senate too. But, and here's the mega-caveat, the conventional wisdom in Washington is often very, very wrong. Cast your mind back to election night 2004, when the US media anointed President John Kerry. The warning this time is that Republicans might be fewer in number, but more motivated and therefore likelier to turn out. Note, too, the reports that White House strategist Karl Rove, the election wizard famed as George Bush's brain, is in cocky mood. In the contests that matter, Rove reckons Republicans have the money and the machine to win.
So Democrats and their friends should approach next Tuesday's congressional elections with low expectations: that way, they won't be disappointed. Then, in the appropriate frame of mind, they can ask the question that matters: what difference will a Democrat win make, not only to the United States but to the wider world?
There are a handful of policy specifics, including a promise to raise the minimum wage, but the party's election programme is stunningly short on detail. It sets out six, general goals - Six for '06 is the not very snappy slogan - and runs to just a single page.
But that's not the point. For a Democratic victory would change the terms of trade of American politics. The precedent is the year the Republicans swept the House, ousting the Democrats who had ruled there for an unbroken 40 years. The Republican landslide of 1994 did what landslides are meant to do: it re-made the terrain. From that point onwards, the Democratic president, Bill Clinton, had to navigate around a landscape shaped by Newt Gingrich and his conservative revolutionaries.
Gingrich set the agenda; Clinton could only react to it. He was reduced to protesting that he was still "relevant". The result was that the president had to drop forever what had been his signature ambition - the reform of America's hideously unjust system of healthcare - and slash the welfare system for those without work.
Democratic success next week could mete out the same fate to George Bush. Since 2000, Republicans have been able to define the terms of debate. Bush, sitting at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, has been able to count on a reliable amen corner at the other. A Democratic House would force Bush onto the defensive; if the Senate were also to fall, he would be crippled. The Bush presidency is already in its final phase; double Democratic success next week would all but end it.
Take two examples that matter most to those outside the United States. One is climate change. Democrats are not great on it, but they exhibit less of the wilful denial that characterises the Republicans. They would at least give the likes of Sir Nicholas Stern a hearing when he crosses the Atlantic to make his case for a cut in carbon emissions - even if they, like the Republicans, can't bring themselves to propose green taxes on anything.
The second critical matter is Iraq. The Democrats' brief policy document, A New Direction for America, calls for "the responsible redeployment of US forces" with "Iraqis assuming primary responsibility for securing and governing their country". Those are, admittedly, words that could be uttered by Bush or Donald Rumsfeld. They too say American troops will stand down as Iraqis stand up. But "responsible redeployment" at least hints at a different impulse: to get the hell out.
Now it's true that Democrats have a double credibility problem in this area. Almost all of them voted to authorise the use of military force in Iraq: they feared what the Republican attack machine would do to them if they didn't. Second, House Democrats may huff and puff all they like about troop withdrawals but that is not a decision for them to take. The constitution gives that power almost exclusively to the commander-in-chief. If Bush insists on staying the course in Iraq, there is little the House of Representatives can formally do to stop him.
But where the constitution ends, politics begins. For both houses of Congress wield a crucial power: the right to hold hearings into the conduct of the administration. For six years, Bush has been spared the ordeal of congressional investigation. While Clinton saw his every move subject to televised inquiry by hostile Republican committees, subpoenaing witnesses, demanding sensitive documents, Bush has operated with the lightest of scrutiny.
As of January 2007, when the new Congress is sworn in, that could change. Suddenly, Democrats would chair the pivotal foreign affairs committees. They could instantly establish the kind of sustained inquiry opposition MPs vainly sought in Westminster yesterday, subjecting the likes of Rumsfeld and others to fierce, public cross-examination.
It would require some careful positioning. Democrats would have to focus on the honesty of the initial case made for war, arguing that they were misled, that they would never have voted for invasion had they known the full truth. This is a debate Britain aired during the Hutton inquiry, but until now the US has lacked a formal outlet for such an examination. If the polls are right, Capitol Hill is about to be that outlet.
And Democrats will press the issue for all it's worth. Surveys show that the war is one of the core questions of the current midterm campaign: one poll saw voters ranking Iraq a single percentage point behind the economy in their list of most important issues. (Troublingly, perhaps, for Democrats, that same UPI-Zogby poll found the number one determinant for voters was the "values, morals and character" of a candidate.) A win in an election billed as a referendum on Bush's foreign policy would embolden Democrats to keep up the pressure: it would have confirmed Iraq as a seam worth mining for political advantage. There would be high-grade allies too, now that several senior Republicans, among them John Warner, chair of the senate armed services committee, have joined the chorus lamenting the Iraq war.
That process would have two long-term effects. First, a sustained assault could blunt at last the enduring Republican edge on national security. Since the cold war, the Republicans have been able to cast themselves as the party of strength in international affairs. That advantage, carefully nurtured and hardened by Rove and Bush, has cost the Democrats dear, helping to keep them out of the White House in all but three presidential elections over the last 40 years. If a new Congress puts the Republicans on the defensive over Iraq, and over the entire Bush approach to foreign policy, that would yield a major political dividend. Watch for Senator Hillary Clinton to follow the process with interest: she would like nothing more than the Republicans to be stripped of their traditional national security armour ahead of 2008.
The more important effect will be on what Bush does next. He could still embark on another crazed venture abroad, even in the face of opposition from the House, but it would be harder. Political reality will force him to operate within new constraints.
Next week's elections cannot, alas, remove George Bush from office. But they can hobble him badly. Those of us watching from afar can only hope that Americans seize their chance.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006