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Begin the Inquisition!

Democrats will throw great hearings, dodge vital issues.

Michael Fellman 9 Nov 2006TheTyee.ca

Historian Michael Fellman is the author of several books on the Civil War, including The Making of Robert E. Lee. He is also director of the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Simon Fraser University. Go here for his previous columns on U.S. politics for The Tyee.

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Cartoon by Ingrid Rice

What are some of the broader and more long-term meanings of Tuesday's pivotal U.S. election? Let me try to read the tea leaves as best I can.

First of all it is important to emphasize that this is the biggest American electoral change since 1994, the first mid-term election of the Clinton era, when the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1946. Such shifts tend to be fairly long-term in duration, leaning to the dominance of one or the other party. And of course this election leads on in two years to the presidential election of 2008, when once again the entire House of Representatives and another third of the Senate will be up for grabs as well.

How great was the shift? Considerably larger than even the most sanguine of Democrats had hoped, and the most apprehensive of Republicans had feared. In the House they needed 15 seats to take control. As of 3:30 p.m. the day after the election, they controlled a 34-seat majority, with nine seats still too close to call -- so their total will be around 40. And it now appears that they will have won six Republican seats in the Senate to take a 51-49 victory in that congressional branch, their maximum goal, which few Democrats expected to occur.

Swear to tell the truth?

With control of Congress, the Democrats will immediately launch major investigations into the Bush administration. Unlike our system, where legislative and executive branches are united in Parliament and cannot investigate themselves, in the American system, the two branches are separate. Congressional committees, organized, numerically dominated and chaired by the majority party, have full authority, including subpoena power, to investigate the executive branch. This has meant that a Republican dominated congress has been able to prevent any serious investigations of the Bush administration, while nothing can stop the Democrats now that they are in power.

There will therefore be major hearings into the origins and conduct of the Iraq war, the expenditure of American governmental funds by American contractors in Iraq (read Halliburton and Big Oil), and the corruption surrounding Republican lobbyists. This latter scandal has already led to imprisonment for Jack Abramoff, the main bag man, and the indictment of Tom DeLay, former number two Republican House leader, as well as the fall of a number of other Republican congressmen. In all these instances and others, the cans of worms have not yet been opened fully.

Opening them will take two years -- a central means by which the Democrats will campaign against corruption and the Iraq war at one and the same time. They might be a fairly spineless lot when it comes to outright opposition to the war and to other Republican policies, but they can and will have the moxie to run entertainingly destructive hearings. That will be their number one priority.

Vaguely populist

Beyond that, I expect the Democrats to push for vaguely populist economic policies -- the raising of the minimum wage, for example, cleaning up health care, for another. It is clear that many voters are concerned about their relationship to the economy, feeling far more apprehensive than they have in the past.

At the same time, I expect little from the Democrats to counteract the huge financial deficit the Bush administration has produced. The only rational response would be tax raises, a program that would give the Republicans ammunition for 2008. Neither do I expect the Democrats to do anything serious about climate change, an issue that is simply not on the American map, though some Democratic presidential candidate might attempt to make it so.

What will Bush do for the next two years? As he said himself in today's news conference, he has no choice but to deal with the new game in town. So he will invite Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker of the House, to lunch, along with the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, Harry Reid. And Bush had better do something about Iraq to appear to be starting the end game of that war, or his party will have no chance next time. He might try to just tough it out, but I think he will feel for a new strategy -- hence the firing of Rumsfeld.

But Bush is in a rough and unpopular way on Iraq, and his congressional party is caught in a web of corruption that is likely to drag them down for the next two years and beyond.

The run for the next presidency will begin today. Which Democrat will emerge? Hilary Clinton won a huge re-election victory in New York last night, including sweeping many traditionally Republican areas, and she will likely take this as an indicator that she can win it all. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, a terrifically charismatic man, whose mixed race seems not to be a large factor, probably comes out as the emotional front-runner of his party at this point. He talks a vaguely populist economic line, much as does former Senator John Edwards, another charismatic politician, and either of them would be positioned well for a run. As would, I believe, Al Gore, who would take hold of environmental issues in a way that might catch on.

But there are miles to go on that next race. Lots of future pieces for me to write for The Tyee.

Fear itself

Finally, for now at least, I would say that the major result of this election is the slowing of the crypto-fascist Republican use of power. The Bush administration made a cipher of Congress; that will now reverse in the ways I have outlined. But it has also used perpetual war, perpetual fear mongering and political divisiveness to run the nation, often at the expense of basic civil liberties and any sense of national consensus.

On the whole, the Democrats went along with this domination of all power, lest they be charged with treason. Though I don't expect them to repeal the Patriot Act, nor to end the war tomorrow, they will stand separate from administration policy and begin to challenge at least parts of it through their investigative powers. They will restore elements of normal political discourse to a dictatorial and arrogant system. They may not be great shakes, but they can lead back to a somewhat more civilized and democratic mode of governance.

And we may have heard the last of Karl Rove, the principle architect of perhaps the most hateful and destructive version of American politics ever.

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