Can Bush be toppled?

In Part 3 of our series, Tom Hayden, Paul Berman and Ross Mirkarimi say yes -- but they disagree about whether the Green Party should be accommodated or destroyed.

Published June 13, 2003 5:59PM (EDT)

Tom Hayden, author, activist and former California state senator

The Bush campaign is spinning his invulnerability myth. In fact he fears it will be a close race. The "liberation" of Iraq is turning into an occupation. As of June 6, 79 Americans had been killed in Iraq and Saudi Arabia since the statue of Saddam was pulled down in Baghdad -- almost as many Americans have died in peacetime as in war. On the homefront, there is no escape from budget crisis, unemployment, environmental rollbacks and fights over stacking the judiciary. If Bush wins the same percentage of votes in 2004 as he did in 2000, he would lose by 3 million votes, largely due to the increase in Latino voters.

Presidential elections are decided on character, theme, national security and the economy. Democrats will have to tie Bush on character, improve on theme, defend on national security and emphasize the economy. But Democrats can't expect the economy to eclipse the national security issue. Nor can they be credible sounding equally warlike with Bush. And they can't expect a national election to be determined by a narrow economic issue like prescription drugs for the elderly.

The overall theme should be: We are internationalist. We believe in national defense. We will not have our patriotism questioned any further, nor our hard-won liberties eroded in the name of secret government. Our great difference with the Republicans is that we believe in more than the almighty dollar, might makes right, and extremism in the name of religion. And our idea of internationalism includes ending sweatshops and protecting rain forests, not promoting global corporate power through the World Trade Organization. We will defend the causes that have made America great, causes which Republicans never supported when it was time to stand up: civil rights instead of warlord rule, the rights of women instead of fundamentalism, union pay instead of sweatshop pay, protecting the environment for the future instead of wrecking it for short-term greed, regulating corporate greed instead of glorifying it. Americans fought for generations to achieve this quality of life, and we will not see it sacrificed by the Republicans. We believe in building a world that is safe for democracy, not an empire for the Halliburtons.

Then there are so many different issues to run on. First, the fantastic cost of empire: Afghanistan, Iraq, future wars, the whole military budget. Second, the domestic consequences: The price of Iraq or Afghanistan is more than we spend for public education in America, more than enough to guarantee healthcare for all our children. Third, the unprecedented trillion-dollar tax break in wartime. Then there's the huge sellout to Halliburton and Bechtel: These corporations with their close connections to the White House are acting like classic war profiteers. And they need to attack the real Republican agenda: underfunding and undermining what Democrats and most Americans believe in -- Social Security, national healthcare, investments in education and the environment. Run hard against those like Grover Norquist, who says the Republican tax cut strategy is to reduce government "down to the size where we can drown in the bathtub."

The conventional wisdom is that Sept. 11 gave Bush a lasting political boost, but it shouldn't. Democrats should be demanding full disclosure of the Senate documents on our intelligence failures before we start spending billions more on the same agencies that fumbled the 9/11 warnings. They should be arguing, on the issue of homeland security, that you can't afford endless wars, trillion-dollar tax cuts, and still invest in protecting our exposed nuclear plants, ports and bridges. And they should be making the case that the proper response to Sept. 11 is not to go shopping and reduce gas mileage standards, as Bush advocated; it should be to break our addiction to the dictatorship of oil, sign the Kyoto treaty and begin conserving and developing alternative sources of energy.

Progressives should be organizing at a grass-roots level for such a platform now, and supporting those candidates who echo the message and promise to continue organizing before, during and after the national elections. And it's crucial that the Democrats make a principled peace with Ralph Nader and the Green Party, starting now.

Paul Berman, author of "Terror and Liberalism"

I think he's beatable; he's got to be! He's inarticulate, dishonest and completely incompetent in some areas, such as diplomacy (up till now anyway). The economy is doing badly in some appreciable measure due to his policies. He ran up the deficit. He turned a healthy situation around in no time at all. His tax cut ensures that not just the federal government, but states and cities are really crushed in terms of supplying social services. And they'll be crushed for years to come. I think the effect of what he's done is extremely radical, in the worst sense of the word. It's what he said he was going to do when he ran; he announced that he was in favor of a giant tax cut. Unfortunately Bush had, in effect, a coalition with Ralph Nader to defeat the Democrats.

The Democrats have to come forth openly and loudly, and with great clarity and enthusiasm. In order to defeat Bush, the Greens really have to be crushed politically. The Democrats need to really emphasize what the social issues are -- above all, how they affect poor people -- and they need to do so not by conceding to the Greens. The Democrats are going to have to say to the Greens, "No, you cannot sacrifice the interests of poor and working people for your own ideological whims, you need to show a little solidarity for the great bulk of the population who needs social and government services."

I interpret the Green Party as a movement of the middle and upper-middle class, as actually having a certain satisfaction with the way things are -- which is to say, the reason you should vote for the Greens is because you want to feel the excitement of political engagement, the adventure of it, but you don't really care what it's going to mean for other people if the Republicans get elected. It's the sexiness of sheer political fantasy. The advantage of the Green Party is that you can feel good, like you're playing a role, but your own good feelings about yourself aren't going to do anybody else one bit of good.

That's only half of it. The Democrats are going to need a very strong position on defense and terrorism, and what I call anti-totalitarianism. They have to show they're just as committed and fierce and decisive as Bush, and in fact, want to go further than Bush. Where Bush appears to be satisfied with military measures, the Democrats should be saying it's not nearly enough: that much more effort should be put into Afghanistan and Iraq; that the U.S. government should be engaging in enormous programs to conduct a war of persuasion and ideas; that much greater resources should be committed to building up a political culture of liberal democracy and institutions in these places -- which is ultimately the way to defeat the fanatical movements that present so much danger to us and the rest of the world.

So how can the Democrats possibly take a strong position in favor of social services and equality, and government at home, and at the same time take a very strong -- even aggressive -- position with regard to defense and anti-totalitarianism? There's a simple formula for how to do this. It is, in fact, the greatest tradition of the Democratic Party. There's a three-word name for it: "Franklin Delano Roosevelt." FDR was the president who was most ambitious with social reforms and measures to create social equality and justice at home; at the same time he was absolutely idealistic and ferocious in his determination to fight totalitarianism around the world. Ultimately, these two things are the same thing. All the Democrats have to do is reclaim that tradition, and say that although Bush's military measures have been good, he hasn't done enough. He has failed in the war of ideas.

Ross Mirkarimi, California Green Party spokesperson

Bush is beatable. It's going to be tough, but he is. I think that the economic turmoil and the disclosure of this administration's deceit -- whether about the case to build a war against Iraq or the administration's engineering of unilateral contracting to friends of the Bush administration -- could be the downfall of President Bush. But that's predicated on the Democrats' ability to find and home in on their voice, as they should as the loyal opposition, and to wage an effective campaign. And there's concern that they may not.

Democrats have straddled the center, center right, for way too long -- to the point where they have lost their aim with regard to what their role is in contrast to the Republican Party. And it's hard for them to reinvent themselves every presidential election cycle. So, to beat Bush they would need to find a voice who can galvanize both left of center and center to rally around a single candidate who can speak eloquently and effectively against the Bush administration. And based on their cadre of contenders for the nomination, they're going to have a very hard time, I think. Maybe somebody could emerge. Maybe a Kucinich, which I think is a real long shot and quite doubtful, or maybe a Howard Dean. That might allay some of the concerns of the left of center constituency, and it may bring people together, where they've been fractured for so long.

I think the Green Party is really in a political and soul-searching mode right now as to determine what its role is in 2004. If the Democrats continue to present themselves in a weak-voiced way, it only prompts the Green Party to find the most effective high-profile candidate possible and run a strong campaign. We need to demystify this notion that it's an either/or process. For 2004 and thereafter there has to be a kind of peaceful coexistence and understanding that it's unlikely the Green Party is going to go away, just like it's unlikely the Democratic Party is going to go away. So both parties need to have their eye on the prize to unseat Bush, to pirouette around each other so we achieve the aims that we would like respectively for each party and the common goals of the voters.

I think the economy will be the most critical issue. It was the wedge issue that brought George Sr. down, when nobody thought he could be beat. George W. will try to navigate around that, and it's up to the Democrats and the Greens and others to make the case that the economy is really in the toilet and that these fraudulent tax cuts really only benefit the rich. The ideal candidate would be saying that the greatest strength of our economy is the empowerment of our own people domestically. To invest back into domestic programs and bolster local communities through the infusion of state and federal funds. Domestic security can only be perpetuated through domestic investment.

So far I think the Bush administration after 9/11 has done an excellent job of manipulating public sentiment with a campaign of fear. And the Democrats have bought into it because they are, in my opinion, milquetoast, in looking like they are weak in questioning President Bush, or in opposition to him. I think they feel it's such an Achilles' heel that it's one of those issues they don't want to touch for fear of being electrocuted. But really the whole national security campaign, the PATRIOT Act, homeland security, everything, needs to be examined under the civic looking glass as to the necessity of these laws and these particular actions by our government domestically and abroad, and reviewed as to the severity and the degree that we really must undergo these actions.

By Joan Walsh

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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By Laura McClure

Laura McClure is assistant news editor at Salon.

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