There is a real chance that the Democrats will win both Houses of Congress in the US mid-term elections on Tuesday of next week. This would reverse the historic defeat they suffered in 1994 at the hands of Newt Gingrich’s “Republican revolution”.
One sign of the shift is that, until recently, George Bush has been a pariah. Fearful that his unpopularity will stick to them, Republican candidates have shunned the president.
The key issue in the elections is Iraq. The tide started to turn against Bush over his administration’s callous and incompetent handling of the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.
The right wing Republican machine in Congress has been dragged down by a succession of scandals about corruption, election-fixing, and sex. But it is Iraq that could deliver the killer punch.
When the Republicans were planning their campaign, Bush’s strategist Karl Rove told them to campaign on the war and accuse the Democrats of wanting to “cut and run”. But, the Washington Post recently reported, “Republican candidates are barely mentioning Iraq on the campaign trail and in their television advertisements…
“It is the Democrats who have seized on Iraq as a central issue. Candidates are pummelling Republicans with accusations of a failed war. Rather than avoiding confrontation on Iraq as they did in 2002 and 2004, they spotlight their opposition in new television advertisements, denounce Republicans for supporting Mr Bush and… demand the ousting of defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.”
Faced with this onslaught, many Republican candidates have become much more openly critical of their administration’s Iraq policy. Even the White House press secretary announced last week that Bush himself is dropping his oft-repeated slogan that the US must “stay the course” in Iraq.
Discontent over Iraq is spilling over to other issues. Even though opinion polls show that voters have become more optimistic about the state of the US economy, the Republicans aren’t getting the benefit.
According to the New York Times, “disenchantment over the war in Iraq has morphed into disillusionment over the direction of the country, breeding distrust in the administration’s policies, surveys suggest.
“Moreover, concerned by weak wage growth, costly health care and eroding benefits, many middle class voters [what in most countries would be called the core of the working class] do not see the economy improving for them.”
At one level the fact that the Democrats are the beneficiaries is bizarre. John Kerry, Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, ran on a pro-war platform, as does Hillary Clinton, the front-running Democrat for the next contest in 2008.
As a party, the Democrats don’t have an Iraq policy. The New York Times points out that “most are not calling for an immediate withdrawal of American forces or offering a vision of what post-war Iraq should look like”.
The Democrats’ confusion and opportunism disorients some anti-war campaigners who are concentrating on attacking their past record and current hypocrisy. It is true that an Achilles’ heel of the US left is the way in which it tends to get drawn behind the Democrats at election time, portraying them as a “lesser evil” than Republicans.
But one can be perfectly clear-eyed about the Democrats’ historical role as one of the two main parties of US big business and imperialism and still recognise that in this election they are becoming the lightning conductor of voters’ rebellion against an increasingly hated administration.
One final note of warning - the Republicans haven’t lost yet. They are past masters of dirty tricks and are much more effective at getting their core vote out than are the Democrats.
And one of the most corrupt features of the US political system is that US Congressional districts are gerrymandered so that only a handful of seats can change hands between the two main parties.
So it’s conceivable that the Bush gang may survive the coming electoral storm. But the signs are that the US is finally facing up to the enormity of the Iraq catastrophe.