Issue 193 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
Just a year ago the Republican Party was basking in the glow of its November 1994 landslide victory, giving the Republicans a majority in both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. At the time Republican leader Newt Gingrich claimed that Reaganism was brought back by popular demand. And he declared the Republicans had a sweeping mandate to carry out a conservative 'revolution' against government spending for the poor and against liberalism in general.
Gingrich was mistaken, both then and now. The alleged 'mandate' for the Republicans was based upon a single opinion poll, repeated over and over again in the press, alleging that 60 percent of Americans supported the Republican programme, the 'Contract with America'. That opinion poll, it now turns out, was a phoney. The survey was conducted by a Republican Party pollster, who now admits he never asked respondents about the Republicans' actual plans.
But if there was ever any doubt as to where public opinion actually stands, a year later there is none. Every opinion survey conducted in recent months shows sharp hostility towards nearly everything the Republicans represent. A November Harris poll showed, for example, that by a huge margin--79 percent-respondents believed the government has a responsibility to guarantee minimum living standards and to provide social benefits to the poor and the elderly. Furthermore, 92 percent agreed the government should guarantee pensions for the elderly; 86 percent said the government should guarantee a minimal level of healthcare to everyone; 78 percent even agreed the government should guarantee public assistance payments for those who cannot work.
And in recent months other aspects of the Republicans' social agenda have also crumbled. A year ago conservatives all over the US launched attacks against affirmative action programmes for blacks--intended to help Congressional Republicans put an end to affirmative action at a national level. But thus far every one of those efforts has faltered, failing to pass in 12 states. Even the Mississippi legislature, in the heart of the Deep South, voted down an anti affirmative action measure.
And in California, where opponents of affirmative action must gather a million signatures on a petition by 21 February in order for a referendum to be placed on the ballot in the 1996 election, only 20,000 had been collected by the end of November.
Even among conservatives, support for key aspects of the Republican programme is less than overwhelming. Among self described conservatives, for example, 63 percent say they oppose cutting Medicare (healthcare for the elderly) to balance the budget. And the once inflammatory issue of abortion has failed to garner support beyond the right wing Christian Coalition.
A recent opinion survey among Republicans showed that only 6 percent consider abortion to be a number one issue.
Gingrich, however, appears not to have noticed that shift in the political winds. Thus the Republican revolution continues, with Gingrich at the helm. In November conservative Republicans introduced proposals to bring back school prayer. And Gingrich used the example of a gruesome murder of a pregnant welfare mother and her children in Chicago as yet another excuse to attack the poor. Without a word of compassion for the murder victims, he declared the murder was the result of 'the welfare state' which had produced 'a drug-addicted underclass with no sense of humanity, no sense of civilisation, and no sense of the rules of life.'
In this context, Clinton's popularity has shot up, with little effort on his own part. After Clinton and Congressional Republicans were locked in an impasse over the budget which shut the federal government down temporarily, people blamed the Republicans, not Clinton, by a two to one margin.
Clinton realised that by appearing to dig in his heels in defence of public spending--however insincere--he could gain support. 'I cannot, I will not, back down,' he declared as he promised to defend public education, the environment and healthcare from the 'deep and unwise cuts' proposed by Republicans.
But a presidential aide was more honest about Clinton's new found principles, 'That's his re-election campaign. He's prepared to fight all winter on that line.'
But Clinton is already largely in agreement with the Republican programme--he has since promised to 'end welfare as we know it' during his first presidential campaign. Now the two sides are *merely squabbling over the details. Both Clinton and the Republicans are agreed on the dismantling of even the most basic government guarantees to the poor and the elderly that were fought for and won during the struggles of the 1930s, and again in the 1960s. Both want to grant substantial tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy--despite the fact that the wealthy in the US already pay taxes at the lowest rate in the industrialised world. Both agree that military spending should stay close to Cold War levels, while education and job training should he cut back.
Clinton's own plans to slash social spending are only slightly less draconlan than the Republicans'. He agreed months ago to sign a welfare bill which would throw 1.2 million more children into poverty. He too plans to slash hundreds of billions of dollars in healthcare for the poor and elderly, just at a slower pace than the Republicans. All in all, Clinton's programme offers nothing but rhetoric to the 80 percent of US workers today who are experiencing falling real wages.
In describing the rise in inequality experienced in the US over the last two decades, mainstream economist Lester Thurow argued, 'No country without a revolution or a military defeat... has ever experienced such a sharp shift in the distribution of earnings as America in the last generation.' But Clinton shrugged off the significance of this trend. He said, 'We've been in a time of increasing inequality. By the way, this is what usually happens when you move from one economic mode to another.'
Whether Clinton or the Republicans win the budget standoff, one thing is certain: the US government will no longer consider itself obligated to keep even the poorest of the poor from starving--and 60 years of social legislation will have been undone. The only way it can be won again is the same way it was won in the first place--by massive struggle on the part of workers.