The Unelected President
It's official. The Banana Republicans now occupy the White House.
In direct--and predictable--contradiction to his campaign rhetoric of accommodation and compromise, George "Shrub" Bush begins his illegitimate regime like countless other coup figureheads--with cynicism and an iron hand. How firmly will the forces of democracy oppose him? Remember that Bush was allowed to take power precisely because the "New Democrats" lack the strength or character to stand up to the hard right. Predictably, their performance at the dawn of the Shrub years is already discouraging. Indeed, if the nation and its natural environment are to survive at all, clear and powerful resistance must come from where it always comes--the grassroots--but with far more conviction than we've seen in many a decade.
The clearest sign of the Bush hard line comes with his chief law enforcement officer. Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft is a carbon copy of countless martial strongmen installed in Third World countries by the father of the new president and the national security apparatus Bush Sr. once ran. The former Missouri Senator (who was beaten for re-election by a dead man) is the creation of the corporations and fundamentalist church groups that paid for his losing campaign--and for that of his new boss.
Ashcroft is pro-corporation (especially tobacco), pro-gun, pro-military, pro-death penalty, pro-welfare for religious schools, and an ardent fan of the Confederacy. He is anti-black, anti-choice, anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-speech, anti-poor, anti-green and anti-labor.
In short, he's a poster child for the Bush junta, a humorless gray cabal of old economy types whose primary agenda will be to further the Reaganite redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich while raping the natural planet along the way. They'll add billions in church and corporate welfare. In the name of "liberty," they'll erase as many individual rights and freedoms as their dominance of a bought Supreme Court can facilitate.
Star wars is only the most visible of the massive military and other scams this militant right-wing crew intends to foist on the public in the coming years, to the benefit of their corporate and fundamentalist sponsors. We can also expect an escalated drug war, new jungle bloodshed in Central America, heightened tensions with China and Russia, and a relentless assault on the natural environment and basic freedoms of speech and the press. All are sure to come.
The regime has been pre-bought by more than $350 million in contributions made to the Bush campaign in a larger national "election" that cost some $3 billion, much of that paid to electronic media, whose opposition to campaign finance reform is thus guaranteed.
Alongside Ashcroft is Gale Norton as Bush's Secretary of Interior nominee. A fanatic "property rights" cultist, Norton says the public can't impose environmental or other restrictions on private property owners. Thus she opposes the Clean Air and Water Acts, the National Parks system and all other communal attempts to preserve the natural environment and other life support systems essential to our collective survival.
Norton's ideology got new swagger last week from the U.S. Supreme Court, which used a "states' rights" argument to vastly weaken the Clean Water Act in a case involving a landfill in northern Illinois. By the usual 5-4 margin, the right-wing majority said the federal government could not overrule the states to save a body of water, even though that natural entity is part of a larger national eco-system. For pure hypocrisy, the Supreme Court ruling is hard to top. It's a reminder of who, exactly, is taking control of the White House--and how.
The Y2K electoral theft
History will recall that in the election of 2000, George W. Bush lost the nationwide popular vote to Al Gore by some 539,947 votes, plus the uncounted thousands in Florida. Not to mention another 2.6 million votes that went to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.
History will note that, in a dozen different ways, Bush almost certainly lost the popular vote in Florida. Had Bush's brother not been governor there, Gore would have won the state's electoral votes and the electoral college. Had Bush's cousin not been perched at Fox News--and was the first network election chief to call the state for Shrub--the other TV networks might not have followed suit and instead covered the race properly on election night.
History will further note that with its fraternal Republican Governor and a Republican Secretary of State that was Bush's campaign chair, the state of Florida waged a systematic and effective campaign to disenfranchise blacks and Jews who were known to be supporting Gore by margins of four-, five- and even nine-to-one.
Black citizens were removed from the voter rolls en masse by false charges that they were felons, a move choreographed by a sophisticated computer firm hired with state money to do just that. African-Americans were stopped from reaching the polls by police who demanded various forms of impossible identification. African-Americans were booted from actual voting stations by phony requirements reminiscent of the old poll taxes and other scams used by the descendants of John Ashcroft's beloved Confederacy. Voting machines in black and Jewish districts conveniently malfunctioned and made a mockery of democracy.
Only the old Soviet Joe Stalin could aptly describe the Florida outcome: "It doesn't matter who casts the votes, only who counts them."
To make sure those votes were counted for a Bush victory, the United States Supreme Court stepped in. On a Saturday, the high court ruled that the Florida recounts must stop. On the following Tuesday, it ruled there was no time to resume the recount.
To justify its demand that George W. Bush win the election, the conservative majority used a series of tortured and inconsistent arguments that essentially imposed federal control on the state's electoral process. The Supreme Court demanded, among other things, a uniform standard for counting ballots when no such a doctrine has ever existed in federal law. The court trashed the very states' rights philosophy so-called conservatives have used for two centuries as a cover to oppose federal guarantees of such inconvenient luxuries as civil rights, civil liberties, voting rights and environmental protection. In short, the federal imposition used to guarantee Bush's victory is in direct ideological contradiction to the states' rights arguments the same justices used to overturn the ecological protection of those waterways in Illinois.
Also lost in the shuffle were the Supreme Court Justices' own conflicts of interest. Both Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor had long since made public their desire to retire from the bench, along with their unwillingness to do so with a Democrat in the White House. The wife of Justice Clarence Thomas and the sons of Justice Antonin Scalia all had direct personal interests in a Bush victory based on jobs they held at the time of the decision. Scalia also made known his desire to become Chief Justice, which could only happen if Rehnquist resigned under a Republican president, such as George W. Bush.
The electoral debacle of the year 2000 thus forever bankrupted any residual credibility remaining to the conservatives' arguments for states' rights. From now on, decisions such as the Illinois wetlands destruction will be tagged with the footnote that the court remained firm in its commitment to states' rights--except in cases involving the election of a Republican president to the White House. Except for his intellectual mediocrity and exceptional meanness of spirit, history will remember Rehnquist only for his signature theft of the Y2K election, and the permanent damage done to the Supreme Court's once-towering credibility as an incorruptible institution of last resort.
A Shrub in deed
How will history remember George W. Bush?
Liberal pundits expect a field day with Shrub's obvious lack of intellectual and oratorical fire power. His voluminous malapropisms already rival those of his father. Smug Democrats assume his lack of charisma and bandwidth will automatically render him an ineffective, one-term failure. Having inherited the family business, whenever a really tough decision comes along, he'll call his father. Poppy's cabinet is his personal missile shield.
But one need only remember Ronald Reagan to recall the danger of underestimation. Liberals branded Reagan "an amiable dunce." But he was neither. Ronnie's most decidedly un-amiable programs were brutal to the poor, the environment, women, people of color, the people of Central America. His lack of bookish intellect did not stop him from charming the media and enough of the American public to enforce the most destructive social agenda since Calvin Coolidge. Though his popularity ratings were far below those of Bill Clinton, he managed to run up the biggest financial, educational and ecological debt in national history and to imbue an entire generation with a deep-rooted sense of materialistic cynicism.
In short, Reagan's rightist accomplishments were staggering.
Can Shrub repeat? Those who assume his deer-in-the-headlights demeanor dooms him to failure might recall his debates with Al Gore, where the obviously brighter but terminally arrogant Vice President flashed his brittle core and lost an election that had been handed to him on a silver platter.
In so doing, Gore revealed the real black hole of the coming era--the New Democrats. The signal moment came last week, when--despite howls of rage from the Congressional Black Caucus--not one of the 50 Senate Democrats could muster the common decency to force a public debate over the most obviously stolen American election since 1876.
Eight years ago, when a legitimately elected Bill Clinton assumed office, Republican zealots waited nary a nanosecond to launch a full bore partisan attack over everything from gays in the military to the new president's persona. For two full terms, conservatives waged an unrelenting assault on every particle of Clinton's moderate agenda, capping it off with a full-blown impeachment over his endlessly entertaining love life.
Clinton obliged by fighting hard for nothing except NAFTA and a wildly creative redefinition of what constitutes sex. The New Democratic agenda was a corporate-funded moderate Republican charade dressed in baby boomer blue-jeans.
Clinton-Gore proposed a feeble national health care plan, then tossed it at the first sign of corporate opposition. They dismantled the welfare system (for the poor, not the corporations) in ways no Republican could have dared. They compiled a truly horrendous record on civil liberties in general and wiretapping in particular. They escalated the drug war, jacking the U.S. prison population to a staggering two million while arguing to the U.S. Supreme Court, in the administration's dying days, that state referenda for medical marijuana should be overturned. Clinton-Gore did greatly aid the environment by vetoing, for eight years running, the nuclear power industry's attempt to flood the highways and railways with high-level radioactive waste headed to Nevada. But they broke their promise to shut the WTI toxic waste incinerator in East Liverpool, which became a symbol for the administration's lack of green integrity and nerve.
Perhaps the most telling moment came in the Shrub debates, when the Texas oil man accused Gore of failing to implement an energy policy. The accusation could hardly have been more hypocritical--except that it was accurate. For eight years, right into the Gore campaign, the administration talked a good game about fighting global warming and pushing renewable energy sources over fossil fuels. But Clinton-Gore's tangible accomplishments were marginal at best. They fudged on everything from auto efficiency standards to government purchases of recycled paper to utility deregulation to reactor safety. Clinton failed even to restore to the White House roof the solar panels installed by Jimmy Carter then removed by Reagan.
In the waning moments of his regime, with political costs lowest and exposure at its peak, Clinton indulged in a showy (but welcome) outburst of conservationism. His high-profile creation of millions of acres of national monuments, roadless wilderness and protected forests came like rain after an interminable drought. But why at the end of his term, and not at the beginning? And why did he flinch from using the National Monuments Act to protect the Alaska Wildlife Refuge, soon to be pillaged by Shrub's hate-nature oil assault team?
Which brings us to the real reason the New Democrats leave the White House with such an excruciatingly short list of tangible accomplishments: Money.
Bill Clinton's campaign genius has been to wed the hard realities of corporate cash with the slick gloss of social commitments. When push came to shove, he could always manage to ditch just enough of the social agenda to keep him funded, but not too much to blow it with the public.
Al Gore's downfall was his inability to simultaneously dance to contradictory tunes. He raised so many millions that when George W. Bush astonishingly accused him of spending more on his campaign than the Republicans, Gore simply sighed and groaned, but had no comeback. For all his populist prattle, his soul was sold.
Because he couldn't double-dip like Clinton (and because he was too uptight to let Elvis campaign for him) Gore will (gratefully) fade into history along with Mike Dukakis and Walter Mondale. Clinton still runs the New Democratic Party. His brilliant celebrity wife will dominate those 50 Senators, bide her time, learn the ropes, expand her base and, sooner or later, her time will come. And the New Democrats will become ever more besotted with corporate money and the illusions of social justice.
But they will not stand up to the Bush junta. There have already been gutter fights over appointees like Linda Chavez and Gale Norton. But the heavy lifting, as usual, will be left to those outside the mainstream--in this case, those who supported Ralph Nader and the Green Party.
For years to come, the New Democrats will scapegoat Nader for the Y2K debacle. They will point to Nader's 90,000 votes in Florida and thousands more in New Hampshire as the deciding factor. They will ignore the fact--as they did last week in the U.S. Senate--that Gore actually won both the popular and the electoral vote. And that Nader had nothing to do with Bill Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, or the spring crash of NASDAQ, or the untimely explosion of warfare in the Middle East, or the failure of Clinton-Gore to carry their own states of Tennessee and Arkansas (not to mention the perennial Democratic stronghold of West Virginia), any one of which could have put Gore in the White House.
Nor did Nader cause Gore's pathetic showings in three debates (from which Nader was in fact physically removed), or Jeb Bush's theft of Florida, or the Supreme Court's cynical intervention. The New Democrats will also suppress the fact that even though Gore was a miserable candidate who ran a miserable campaign, the election still had to be stolen by Bush, pure and simple.
Not that Nader didn't try to meet Gore halfway. Nader met with the new "green" VP in 1993, then offered to convene a national grassroots gathering for him. In a conference call a week before the 2000 election, Nader told me he wrote Gore a dozen times and called him three times in the lead-up to last November. But Gore refused to meet him.
Nonetheless, it will be convenient for the New Democrats to point to every Shrub transgression as something that would not have happened had Ralph Nader not run for president. And then to do nothing about it.
Most important, the New Democrats will forget the moment that Al Gore had the election wrapped up. At the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Gore stole Nader's thunder and ignited the activist constituency. Gore gave the speech of his life, a straightforward populist call to action, perfectly designed to bring the truly committed back into the Democratic fold. In fact, Gore endorsed the agenda perfected over the past 35 years by none other than America's leading consumer activist.
Gore soared to a 15-point lead.
And then he wilted, as if his corporate sponsors panicked, and ripped up his roots. Gore gracelessly helped bar Nader from the debates, then lost them. Instead of co-opting the green agenda, Gore and his flunkies attacked the messenger, as if their chief opponent was a 66-year-old bachelor flying coach with his nephew, charging admission to his speeches.
"Only Al Gore can beat Al Gore," David Letterman said, because it was never clear what he stood for, other than for Al Gore. Slick Willie could pull it off. Stiff Al couldn't.
We can expect the New Democrats to fight the fringe battles over appointments and the like. But the only Americans who'll reliably resist the brunt of the Shrub assault are precisely those the New Democrats trashed, along with those the Bush junta so methodically disenfranchised. The thousands of young and aging activists who paid to hear Nader rant. The 2.6 million who voted for him. The millions more who grudgingly voted for Gore but loathed his short-changed agenda and are ready to fight it out as the corporate New Democrats aren't.
The same millions who expected a fair national hearing on how this election was stolen, and were denied it by a spineless Senate.
After the early skirmishes, and except for the easy battles, the New Democrats will roll over for the Bush junta. Their money comes from the same corporations. They won't withstand a focused, massively financed right-wing juggernaut intent on substituting raw muscle for the lack of a popular mandate.
That's the way they do it in the Third World. Who will stop them here?