Change is coming to Congress. The Democrats are favored to win back the Senate this November. The odds of them winning back the House are long, though not impossible. In any event, as the most recent data from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics shows, major gains by the Democrats in the 115th Congress are expected, in part due to the influence of Donald Trump.
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For all the Democrats’ flaws, this development will likely open a path for progress on some crucial issues. For six years, the obstructionist GOP Congress has blocked most worthwhile legislation: student loan reform, unemployment benefit extensions, immigration reform and much more. Filled with global-warming deniers, this Congress also stood in the way of desperately needed environmental regulations. But if the Democrats gain seats in the new Congress, what can we expect on these and other key issues, including war and militarism, trade, income inequality and criminal justice?
To consider this question, it is useful to examine the 2006 midterms and their aftermath. The Democrats gained 31 House seats and six Senate seats, and dominated the state elections as well. It was a “Blue Wave” election, celebrated wildly as a strong rebuke of George Bush’s illegal, unprovoked invasion of Iraq, which was the most important issue to voters in 2006. Americans wanted the Democrats in Congress to end the war, as did most US troops by that time. Democrats, well aware of this, rode this antiwar opposition into power. (This same sentiment, notably, is one reason Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary.)
Unfortunately, however, the Democrats didn’t end the war. Democrats were unable, and some seemingly unwilling, to put any teeth in their “antiwar” measures. Instead, they kept giving Bush hundreds of billions of dollars in funding to continue (and even expand) the very war Democrats had a “mandate” to end. By doing this, the party enabled the ongoing destruction of a country. These Democrats were never held accountable for their empty campaign promises, and some activists became disillusioned and/or turned off from the party as a result.
The capitulations of the Democratic Congress after the 2006 election were indeed discouraging. But they can serve as a learning tool today, as we face a new election. “There are lessons,” Noam Chomsky told Truthout, referring to the aftermath of the 2006 election. “The more serious lesson is not to quit and go home once the election is over. That’s when the real work starts: to hold the feet of the candidates to the fire. Same this time around.”
This is especially true given that many Democrats, in attempting to win over members of Bernie Sanders’ army of grassroots supporters, are now running pseudo-populist campaigns and making bold claims on matters like trade, income inequality and campaign finance. Remembering 2006 may help progressives prevent the next Congress from repeating the betrayals of 2006.
The Audacity of False Hope
On November 8, 2006, a nation woke up to the news that incumbent Virginia Sen. George Allen was conceding his Senate race to his Democratic opponent Jim Webb. This was the decisive 51st seat in the Senate — meaning the Democrats were taking back both branches of Congress, surpassing even the most optimistic projections. That same morning, President Bush acknowledged that the election was a “thumping,” and ousted his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. The defense secretary took the fall because he was, as Time described him in 2003, “the Godfather of the Iraq War.”
In 2006, President Bush’s war, which was enabled by the infamous votes of 22 Senate Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, was especially bloody and was growing increasingly unpopular within a public that once overwhelmingly supported it. Many younger voters had spent every day of their adult lives with Bush as president and the war raging on, one day after the next. After all these years, there was finally hope that this war might end.
“I was a teenager during the 2006 midterm elections and was ardently opposed to the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. I had hoped that getting a Democratic Congress elected would at least help bring these conflicts to an end,” said Chris Longnecker, an activist who later went on to help found the Occupy Wall Street movement. “The duplicitous nature of the Democratic politicians swept into office during these elections helped open my eyes to the ineffectiveness of attempting to pursue social justice through elections, political parties and the state.”
To understand why Longnecker and others felt deceived, one must remember the extent to which Democrats used the horrors of the war to get elected in 2006. Consider this New York Times article from just days after the election ended, entitled “Democrats Turned War into an Ally.” The article reflected on Rahm Emanuel, then the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), lamenting that the violence in Iraq had fallen off the front pages and the evening news due to Bush’s weeklong commemoration of the September 11 anniversary. How could Democrats win if this unpopular war was fought uncovered, he asked, frustrated that the carnage of the war — which he had supported with vigor — wasn’t paying as many dividends as it had previously.
“Iraq was the driving factor behind everything,” Emanuel said to the Times, regarding the war’s impact on the election. “And October  was a disastrous month [in Iraq].” After the election, Emanuel was praised endlessly. The Democratic Congress was “The House Rahm Built,” said the Chicago Tribune.
A “Shamefully Timorous Congress”
Emanuel’s enthusiasm about the fact that October 2006 was one of the deadliest months in Iraq would be slightly less disturbing if the Democrats had then used their power to stop the war in the next two years, but that was far from what happened.
“The Democrats ran against the war,” said Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, in an interview with Truthout. “But in Congress, they caved to pressures and claims that if you didn’t fund the war, you didn’t ‘support the troops.”
This is not to say Democrats did absolutely nothing. But only a handful were serious about ending the war; most were happy enough to simply appear to oppose the war.
“Despite promising during the 2006 election campaign that, if given the majority in Congress, they would challenge Bush on the war,” Zunes said, they chose to “side with President Bush, and not the American public.”
The efforts the Democrats did make were often purely symbolic. For instance, in February 2007 the new Democratic-controlled Senate passed a “non-binding resolution” criticizing Bush’s handling of the war. As The New York Times rightly noted, “such resolutions are not laws and have no practical effect.” But it did allow politicians to stand in front of a microphone on C-Span and claim the moral high ground.
A few other measures attached timetables for withdrawal (more than a year down the road) to the funding of the war — funding Bush could not get without the help of a Democratic Congress — but these types of bills (like H.R. 1591) were, of course, vetoed by the president. After the veto, the House relented and offered up essentially the same bill (H.R. 2206) with no provisions to end the war, but $124 billion to fund it. To their credit, House progressives like Reps. Dennis Kucinich, Peter Welch, Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee would not lend their votes to the war effort. Meanwhile, the Senate was far more supportive of the war, but H.R. 2206 drew 12 no votes from Senate Democrats, including from Obama, Clinton (both running for President by this time) and Bernie Sanders. A complete summary of legislative action from the 110th Congress as it relates to ending or limiting the war is available from the Center for Media and Democracy.
Further, as author and activist Norman Solomon documented at the time, some progressive groups were as timid as the Democrats. Moveon.org, Solomon noted, failed to support any serious legislation from House Progressives that called for an end to the war. When asked why Moveon.org didn’t take a firm stance on withdrawing troops, the group’s then executive director, Eli Pariser, told Solomon: “We’re seeing a broad difference of opinion among our members on how quickly the U.S. should get out of Iraq. As a grassroots-directed organization, we won’t be taking any position which a large portion of our members disagree with.” Historian Howard Zinn later responded to the group’s lack of pressure against the Democrats in Congress with notable exasperation and anger.
“It’s as if, before the Civil War, abolitionists agreed to postpone the emancipation of the slaves for a year, or two years, or five years, and coupled this with an appropriation of funds to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, he wrote of the war funding bill that Moveon.org decided to support, in a piece in The Progressive magazine. “When a social movement adopts the compromises of legislators, it has forgotten its role, which is to push and challenge the politicians, not to fall in meekly behind them. We are citizens. Whatever politicians may do, let them first feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not for what is winnable, in a shamefully timorous Congress.”
The Power of the Purse
One defense that members of the 110th Congress can make for not ending the war is simple: The GOP had the White House. Bush had his veto pen and a clear willingness to use it. Legislation, however, was not the only option available to Democrats for ending the war. They could’ve used the “power of the purse,” said Zunes.
“All they needed to do was to refuse to pay for the war,” he said. “Democrats have used the power of the purse before.”
Indeed, as Zunes wrote, in 1970 Democrats used this power in their refusal to fund President Nixon’s reckless expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Yet, after the 2006 election, the Democrats continued to approve each funding bill, effectively handing the president a blank check to continue the war unabated.
If Democrats do take the Senate this year, they very well may try to claim they must reluctantly relent on some bill because they don’t have 60 seats, or because the GOP controls the House. But this won’t be true. In 2006, Democrats refused to use their own powers to end the war, making their antiwar rhetoric effectively meaningless at best, and dishonest at worst.
Public Pressure and Primaries
The Democrats’ ongoing, de facto support for the war in Iraq, said Solomon in an interview with Truthout, shows that “public sentiment does not, on its own, create massive pressure.”
“The war was unpopular, but yet it continued. You need to have a massive outpouring of movements making pointed demands and threats, including supporting primary challengers,” he said. “You need to play hardball, even with people who are, ostensibly anyway, your friends.”
Indeed, there is legitimate concern that, as they did after the 2006 election, Democrats will eventually support — or at least fail to sufficiently oppose — issues they are now running against. The debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a key example. While the majority of congressional Democrats oppose the trade bill, efforts to oppose it formally in the Democratic Platform were rebuffed, mostly by Clinton supporters.
There has long been legitimate concern among progressives that Clinton’s stated opposition to the TPP is not serious. If she does support the trade deal, it could provide cover for congressional Democrats to get in line. That is, unless they feel doing so may cost them their seat. Donna Smith, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), says she supports using the threat of progressive primary opponents as a tool to hold Congress accountable.
“Today, a lot of Democrats are running on the progressive platform that Bernie Sanders helped create,” Smith said in an interview with Truthout. “If they don’t adhere to it, they should know that they do not get this support. I think primaries are a great way to apply pressure.”
Ten Years of Changes, Both Good and Bad
Of course, since 2006, much has changed about the political landscape. Since the 2008 Economic Crisis and the recession that followed, the public has become far more concerned with economic inequality and other class issues. Large-scale organizing efforts like Occupy and the Sanders campaign have mobilized many people around economic injustice. In recent years, Black Lives Matter and the broader Movement for Black Lives have been a powerful force exposing police violence against Black people, and the wider manifestations of anti-Black state violence. They have never been afraid to protest or pressure Democrats.
“This type of organization wasn’t around in 2006 — not to this extent,” said Smith. “This gives us new tools to hold Congress accountable that were not as powerful 10 years ago.”
On the other hand, since 2006, other issues have slipped from mainstream public consciousness. Notably, war and peace are no longer front and center, although the “madness of militarism” persists now, just as strongly as it did in 2006. Among current concerns are rising tensions with Russia, a civil war in Syria, US-backed coups in Latin America, a failed state in Libya and the ongoing presence of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“There has been no real roll-back of US war measures. We still have a mass media oriented toward continuing war, and a failure of the Democratic Party rank and file to force a move against it,” Solomon said. “These very tendencies that existed 10 years ago still exist today.” Solomon has also been critical of the Sanders campaign for deemphasizing “foreign policy, military spending and war.”
Another change has been Citizens United, which has made it much harder for voters to influence members of Congress, given that members are pressed every day by countless lobbyists and donors representing the titans of industry. This is especially difficult in the Senate, where incumbents hold office for six years before voters get to chime in.
Congress Must be Moved “Kicking and Screaming”
As the 2006 election showed, a big victory for Democrats is not necessarily a big victory for progressives. “Progressive Democrats don’t lead so much as they are dragged kicking and screaming,” Zunes said to Truthout.
The night the Democrats won the 2006 midterms, many progressive groups celebrated — and then proceeded to tacitly endorse those Democrats’ failures by refusing to challenge them on core issues.
This can’t be the case after the 2016 election. The 2006 election was largely a bait-and-switch operation organized by Rahm Emmanuel. Mainstream Democrats used public discontent to win an election, but then ignored it once they were governing. Today, once again, there is widespread discontent — and this time it is far more organized. If it remains organized, and people are willing to put serious pressure on Democrats in Congress, perhaps we can avoid a repeat of the debacle of 2006.