Erik Gustafson

No Mandate for War

As you shake off the hang-over of the November 5th election, you may be wondering what happened. In TV land, some pundits will argue that the vote was a referendum on the president's plans for a war on Iraq and demonstrates popularity for a war presidency. 

Even a Democratic leader made this erroneous claim. Senate Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) said on NBC, "I think it means that the president has an opportunity here to enact and proceed with the plan (on Iraq) as he has articulated it. The American people appear now to give him the benefit of the doubt." 

However, the facts lead to a different conclusion. 

If November 5th was truly a referendum, then one would expect to see significant Republican gains among Democratic voters as well as among Independent and Third Party voters. Although Republicans appear to have expanded the electorate in a few key states, on a national level there was no significant shift. 

So what happened?

Low Turnout

Republican turn-out between the 2000 Presidential election and Tuesday's mid-term election remained roughly constant, while turn-out among Democrats declined. The GOP had a strategy: use national security as an issue to get voters to the polls in roughly the same numbers as they turned out two years ago to elect President Bush. The Democrats had no strategy, no message, and failed to match the GOP's voter mobilization, particularly among African Americans. 

For example, in Georgia, the number of people who voted Republican rose slightly, while turnout among African Americans declined according to the office of Georgia's Secretary of State. As a result, Republicans ousted incumbent Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes and Sen. Max Cleland. A political analyst quoted by USA Today, Bill Shipp, estimates that African Americans made up 18 percent or 19 percent of the overall vote in Georgia. Shipp believes the Democrats would have needed that figure to be 22 percent to win. 

Across the country, core Democratic constituents were disgusted by the failure of Democratic leadership to challenge the president on his war resolution and other White House initiatives. They felt they had no one to speak for them. If Democratic members of Congress had voted, as a party, against the war, they would likely not have suffered such losses at the ballot box. 

Using Georgia again as an example, U.S. Senator Max Cleland saw a decrease in Democratic turnout because he played to the Republican White House and voted for another Gulf War. He joined the war faction in the Democratic Party, thinking his vote would paint him as a moderate with voters. This didn't fool the Republicans, but it did alienate a significant portion of Cleland's liberal base. Thus, he fell victim to a failed strategy to minimize national security as a national issue -- a plan devised by James Carville, Terry McAuliffe, Tom Daschle, and Dick Gephardt. 

Lack of Vision

But there is an even larger problem. Democrats have not articulated an alternative strategy for our national security to differentiate themselves from the "the-world-be-damned" approach of President Bush. It is not enough to criticize and question the president's war plans. There needs to be a clear and articulate alternative. Without leadership to build support for more constructive national security initiatives, rallying opposition against a disastrous war in Iraq will become impossible. 

Emboldened now by a perceived popular mandate to wage war, hawks within the Bush administration, and their friends in the Democratic leadership, are already rushing to an attack on Iraq a foregone conclusion. 

On election night at four a.m., before the ballots were even cold, the USS Constellation battle group set sail for the Persian Gulf from San Diego. The group includes an aircraft carrier and three large cargo vessels loaded with the tanks, heavy armour and equipment for the 3rd Infantry Division (a division used previously in the 1991 Gulf War). 

Time is running out. 

What happened on election day can be explained, in part, by a split in the Democratic Party. The split resembles the fractious 1968 Democratic Convention, when Democrats were divided over the Vietnam War, while Republicans uniformly supported it. Instead of uniting with a constituency that largely opposed a war in Southeast Asia, Democrats allowed the United States to wage an unnecessary war, which resulted in millions of Vietnamese and more than 58,000 dead U.S. soldiers. 

Winners Voted No

Today, the leadership of the Democratic Party is similarly out of step with its rank and file membership and a majority of Americans. According to an October 30 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Americans oppose a unilateral,  unprovoked, first-strike war and occupation of Iraq by a 3 to 1 margin. The pro-war faction of the Democratic leadership led candidates in close races around the nation to electoral ruin. When he realized this, Democratic strategist James Carville put a garbage can over his head live on CNN during the election-night coverage. 

So who was right among the Democrats? The late Senator Wellstone. Members of Congress who shared his courage and backbone by voting "No" to war on Iraq were rewarded at the ballot box. Contrary to what James Carville, Terry McAuliffe, Tom Daschle, and Dick Gephardt believed, every Democrat up for reelection who stood up against the President and voted "No" won their races - with only one exception. Rep. Jim Maloney in Connecticut lost, but redistricting and a strong opponent had already sealed his fate. Meanwhile, the "No" votes cast by Julia Carson, Rush Holt, Rick Larsen, Jay Inslee, and even Republican Jim Leach in Iowa contributed to electoral victory. In the Senate, Paul Wellstone's numbers had risen from 6 percent behind before the war vote to 6 percent ahead at the time of his death. 

Unfortunately, the leadership of the Democratic party chose not to side with the Paul Wellstones of the party, and allowed the GOP to own issues related to national security and war on Iraq. According to a CBS exit poll, Americans who chose "the war on terrorism/Iraq" as their foremost concern voted Republican by a 2 to 1 margin. Using the tragedy of Sept. 11, the White House used fear as a means to drive their supporters to the polls. 

Outspent By the GOP

This method was fueled by massive spending by Republicans, who out-spent Democrats by more than 2 to 1 on the national level. President Bush used "all-Bush-all-war-all-the-time" TV ads and a large campaign staff to energize his base of voters. The result was a Republican Party turn-out similar to a presidential election. 

Hundreds of millions of dollars came from corporations facing a Congress that had threatened to rein in their recently publicized criminal activities, and from oil companies bent on securing a monopoly on Iraqi oil to arms manufacturers set to earn billions from new defense contracts. Bush alone raised more than $150 million used to target a handful of Senate races.

So what will the political payback be? A war in Iraq? 

Despite the multi-million dollar contributions that went to the GOP, every Senator and Representative elected to Congress must be held accountable to their constituents. They were elected to represent you. A war in Iraq will harm the international standing and safety of the American people, and risks serious civilian and American casualties. It should be taken off the table. The framers of our constitution viewed war as a last resort in cases of national emergency, and the president has yet to identify that emergency. 

In representing and serving their districts and the American people, no matter what party holds the majority, elected officials are obligated to pursue policies that advance the interests and better the welfare of their constituents. If instead they serve the interests of highest bidder, say Lockheed-Martin and Halliburton, then our democratic system begins to fail. 

If the key election ingredients were money, oil, and national security, the prescription for change is obvious. We need candidates and elected leaders who are willing to take bold positions on national security and foreign policy based on American values, not military intervention for corporate gain or revenge. 

The issue of war needs to be framed in the context of facts, not fear. For instance, how will a war in Iraq, for example, make Americans and the world safer? The administration has yet to provide any answers. Meanwhile, according to realists like Professor John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, 95% of the national security elite in this country and our allies believe a war of aggression against Iraq will undermine our national security. In Mearsheimer's words, "our allies think we have lost our minds." 

Hopefully our newly elected Members of Congress have not lost their minds and will counsel the administration to work with our allies and through the United Nations to peacefully disarm Iraq. 

However, hope will need a helping hand. It will be up to the American people and all those in positions to counsel the new Congress and the administration to urge restraint and rein in the reckless ambitions of Washington's hardliners. 

And that effort begins with you. 

Erik Gustafson is a veteran of the Gulf War and the executive director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (www.epic-usa.org). He is also a co-founder of the newly-formed Veterans for Common Sense (www.VeteransForCommonSense.org). He can be reached at egustafson@igc.org.

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