October 29, 2002
The vote that gave Bush the power to go war with Iraq was
timed to help hand the Republicans every branch of national
power in this country. And with the tragic death of Senator
Paul Wellstone, unless a good deal more citizens get involved
in the upcoming election, the Republican strategy might succeed.
Conventional wisdom says Bush pushed through the vote so
Republicans could drown out other critical issues - the economy,
corporate crime, environmental destruction - and attack Democratic
opponents as unpatriotic. They're doing this, with a ruthlessness
to be expected from Bush campaign manager Karl Rove and the
others calling the shots in recent Republican campaigns. But
the greater threat from the vote is that many people who normally
volunteer for Democratic candidates and furnish their grassroots
financial base will stay home in critical races because they're
angry at the Democratic leadership and those Senators and
Congressmen who caved on the war powers.
The withdrawal of volunteer energy could then allow the Republicans
to end up holding the Senate, the House, the Presidency, and
- with one or two more nominees - an even more rabidly right-wing
Supreme Court for the next generation. If what Bush has passed
so far is frightening, imagine if he gets "a Congress I can
This isn't an abstract possibility. The Republicans captured
the pivotal 1994 election in large part because progressive
activists all over the country stayed home, at least in terms
of volunteering, angered by Clinton's role in pushing through
NAFTA. Pundits credited the Republican victories to angry
white men, Clinton's failed health care plan, and Newt Gingrich's
"Contract With America." But the defeat was equally rooted
in a massive withdrawal of volunteer support among social
justice activists who viewed themselves as politically betrayed.
Angered by a sense that Clinton was subordinating all other
priorities to corporate profits, grassroots activists nationwide
withdrew their energy from Democratic electoral campaigns.
And by so doing, they helped swing the election for Gingrich.
No place saw a more dramatic political shift in that election
than my home state of Washington. Core Democratic activists
had volunteered by the thousands in November 1992, hoping
to end the Reagan-Bush era. On Election Day, I joined five
other volunteers to help get out the vote in a swing Congressional
district 25 miles south of Seattle. Practically every major
Democratic district in the state had a similar presence. By
turning out enough supporters, we helped carry Washington
State for Clinton and Gore, elect our first woman senator,
capture eight out of nine House seats for the Democrats, and
elect a strong populist governor.
By two years later, in 1994, things had changed. Grassroots
Democratic campaigners mostly stayed home, as disgruntled
spectators. In Washington State, there were barely enough
people to distribute literature and make phone calls in Seattle's
most liberal neighborhoods, let alone in swing suburban districts.
The same was true nationwide. I was traveling city to city,
promoting a book on campus activism, while visiting friends
long involved with social causes. Everywhere I went, critical
races would be decided by the narrowest of margins. Yet my
friends seemed strangely detached from the process, as if
they were so disgusted with the official political sphere
they no longer wanted anything to do with it.
In Washington State, Republicans won seven of the nine Congressional
races, and voters re-elected Senator Slade Gorton, known for
baiting Native Americans and environmentalists. According
to national surveys by CNN and Gallup, the forty-two percent
of America's registered voters who stayed home leaned Democratic
by a wide enough margin that they would have reversed the
electoral outcome, had they only gone to the polls. Even a
modest volunteer effort could have prevented the Republican
sweep and all the destructive politics that's followed in
I worry that the Iraq war vote will similarly demoralize
Democratic volunteers, even though sixty percent of Democratic
Congressmen and half the Democratic Senators took the risk
of being labeled as unpatriotic, and stood up against it.
They did the right thing in part because so many constituents
called, faxed and emailed, demanding that they take a stand.
But people are also angry, and rightly so, at those who've
capitulated. In a time when so many races hang in the balance
I fear our anger and resulting withdrawal may reverse the
critical one-vote margin in the Senate, and give Bush near
total control. That means ramming through the ultra-right
judges that the Judicial committee has been able to block,
enacting more destructive environmental laws, pushing through
even more regressive taxes, cutting even more services to
the poor, and escalating still further the attacks on organized
That's an ugly agenda, and one that's unconstrained by any
sense of humility or hesitation. For all the talk of kindness
and compassion, this feels like the most frightening administration
in my fifty years on the planet.
Whether the Bush administration gains more power or suffers
a setback will depend on who turns out at the polls in race
after contested race. If the 2000 election taught us anything,
it's that elections can hinge on razor-thin margins. In my
state, Democrat Maria Cantwell defeated hard-right Republican
Senator Slade Gorton by 2,229 votes out of more than 2.5 million
cast. Had thousands of volunteers not rang doorbells, walked
precincts, and made phone calls to convince undecided voters
and get people to the polls, Gorton would be our Senator today.
(Cantwell voted the wrong way on Iraq, but took good strong
stands in key tax and environmental votes, and is still vastly
better then Gorton).
Bush was given Florida by the Supreme Court, the butterfly
ballot, the Nader vote, the Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised
one in three African-American men as ex-felons and caused
tens of thousands of largely Democratic voters to be falsely
told that they were ineligible, and a host of other abuses.
But even in the Bush/Katherine Harris version, fewer than
550 Florida voters handed Bush the presidency that he lost
nationally by more than a half million votes.
To prevail in contested races, Democratic candidates need
widespread citizen involvement. They need the precise kinds
of volunteers who were frustrated by the vote on Iraq. They
need them because they're never going to have the kinds of
money available that Bush has been raising non-stop. In some
close races, there should be no moral ambivalence.
The late Senator Paul Wellstone was in a neck-and-neck struggle
in Minnesota, but still took a principled stand against going
to war. Senate candidates like Bill Bradbury in Oregon, Chellie
Pingree in Maine, and Tom Strickland in Colorado have spoken
out strongly as well. Others, like Tim Johnson and Jean Carnahan,
did cave under pressure or electoral fear, but still have
taken strong worthwhile stands on many other issues. We might
remember that only a single Republican Senator broke with
Bush, and only six Republican House members. I know that Paul
Wellstone, who was long one of my heroes, would want us to
do everything we can in this critical time.
So what to do with our anger about the Iraq vote? We may
need to make some pragmatic choices to keep the Republicans
from seizing total power, but that doesn't mean we're morally
obligated to praise those candidates who may lead us into
a disastrous war. Some are also talking of running for president,
from the avowedly hawkish Lieberman, Gephardt, and Edwards,
to those like Kerry and Daschle who raised real reservations
and then capitulated. So we have opportunities to make clear
that their surrender has cost them our support in presidential
primaries and caucuses - and that we will do whatever we can
to ensure that we have a Democratic candidate who offers a
genuine alternative on this critical issue as well as others.
For now, though, our challenge is clear. If we're remotely
near a closely contested Senate or House race, we need to
involve ourselves in every home stretch effort we can to convince
undecided voters and even more critically, to get out every
possible vote on Election Day, even if they caved on the Iraq
vote. Move On (www.moveonpac.org)
lists critical races in every corner of the country, with
links on how to volunteer: Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire,
Bill Bradbury in Oregon, Jean Carnahan in Missouri, Tim Johnson
in South Dakota, Tom Strickland in Colorado, Mark Pryor in
Arkansas, whoever will succeed Paul Wellstone as the Minnesota
nominee, and worth Congressional candidates a several dozen
We can write letters to local papers, call in to radio talk
shows, and volunteer through local labor networks, environmental
groups, or the Democratic party. But we need to find some
candidates where our efforts may make the difference. And
wherever we live, we can donate in a way that can matter.
Last election, Moveonpac raised $2.4 million in contributions
that averaged just $60 each, and made a critical difference
in at least four razor-thin Senate races and a number of key
House races. They now have links to donate to practically
every critical Senate and Congressional race. Online contributions
get logged in almost instantly, so the campaigns can effectively
Long-term, we need genuine campaign reform, using public
financing models that now work wonderfully in Maine, Arizona,
and Vermont and have been passed in Massachusetts. We need
to work on these issues and a host of others after the election
is past. But for the moment the campaign dollars matter. The
more of us who can contribute, the more it will help.
It's tempting to stew in our anger, but anger is useful only
when it impels us to action. Like it or not, we face a president
who came to power in the most questionable of ways, and whose
administration has done everything to consolidate that power
The Democrats have alternated between accommodating and sometimes
resisting, but they've blocked some bad measures and with
one or two more votes would have stopped far more. The Republicans,
with a handful of exceptions, have marched in unison-never
hesitating, never dissenting, doing their best to hand over
our common future to the Enrons of the world. Whether they
succeed in this task may depend on what we do between now
and the election.
Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With
Conviction in a Cynical Time and three other books on citizen
activism. His website can be found at www.soulofacitizen.org.
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