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The January Surprise

For the first time in quite a while there’s hope in the air. Or at least a little less despair. And it’s not because the Democrats took control of Congress. It’s because of which Democrats took control and why they were able to do it.

These ain’t your Clinton-era DLC Blue Dog Republicrats—the wolves in rats’ clothing that have been dominating the party since the Reagan days when they set a new world record for rolling over and playing dead. No. These are more like your parents’ Democrats, cut from the Gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy molds. Hell, they wasted no time bringing George McGovern to Washington to talk about ending the war.

Look at the races. The Democrats that talked about economic justice, the environment and getting the hell out of Iraq provided some of the strongest upset victories. And the Republican-Lite Dems like Harold Ford—they tended not to fare all too well. You see, people who want to vote for Republicans can vote for the real thing. People who wanted to vote for old-fashioned, social-justice Democrats, well, they used to stay home because there was not one to vote for. This year things were different.

Threat of a new Congress

CNN and Fox News did their best to spin this progressive victory into some bizarre sort of neo-con win, but the logic was a stretch even by their standards. Let’s look at the real results. A dozen candidates associated with the Progressive Democrats of America—what the corporate media used to call radicals—cruised to victory, making the Progressive Caucus the largest caucus in the congress.

John Conyers, who is set to chair the Judiciary Committee, wrote the book on election fraud—literally, go to Talking Leaves and buy it. This is the committee that will finally investigate election fraud—and a lot of other stuff. Harlem’s Charles Rangel, a progressive with a long history of speaking truth to power, will chair Way and Means, which oversees, among other things, tax cuts for the rich and corporate-authored trade pacts. David Obey, a longtime supporter of education and labor issues, will chair the Appropriations Committee overseeing government expenditures. Henry Waxman, who has spent much of the last few years sounding alarm bells about Bush administration corruption, will chair Government Reform, the committee that will, among other things, investigate corruption.

In the Senate we’ve got the first Socialist in US history—with Vermont’s Bernie Sanders moving over from the House. Then we’re seeing a rebirth of 1930s-style populism in Virginia’s new Democratic Senator, Jim Webb. On the surface, ex-Navy Secretary and ex-Republican Webb hardly packs the trimmings of a radical. But that all changed when he hit the campaign trail. Unlike most southern Democrats, Webb isn’t about pretending to be a Republican sort of Democrat. Been there. Done it. Webb is an ex-Republican, who rails against his old political vice like an alcoholic or crack addict in recovery.

As a candidate, Webb promised to “reinstitute notions of true fairness in American society,” As a Senator-elect, Webb has been using his media soap box, sometimes despite the best efforts by his hosts to box him in and direct him to more mundane topics, to talk about, in his words, “runaway corporate profits,” and “the bifurcation of our society—the incredible transfer of wealth to the top…at a time when wages and salaries are at an all time low.” According to Webb, there’s “a lack of conscience in Corporate America,” and he’s fixin’ to deal a whuppin’ to America’s new robber barons. He argues that, “the wealthy have a sense of entitlement that has come with this migration of wealth to the upper one percent.”

This isn’t me railing on in my column—it’s Virginia’s new Senator-elect. This is populism. It’s been gone for a few generations but this sort of pocketbook radicalism can get traction in the redneck belt. Webb’s the real deal. Bush is from New Haven.

Threat of clean elections

Then you have to look at the numbers. Once again, there are widespread reports of anomalous election results and wholesale voter disenfranchisement. If the electorate gave the Democrats the plurality that polls predicted on October 1, then the Republicans would have been able to hold the Democrats at bay. The problem for the Republicans is that new sex scandals—the type of stuff the media can’t help but report—and a new slew of corruption charges, helped swing a new slew of undecided voters (it’s hard to make up your mind when there’s not much to it) over to the Democrats. It’s this larger, unexpected margin of victory that helped the Democrats overwhelm the Republican-favoring shenanigans that marred the election. With their new, unexpected power, they seem poised to investigate election fraud and disenfranchisement with an eye on restoring the integrity of the electoral system before the 2008 presidential election. Given the history of the last two presidential elections, this would likely be a deathblow to Republican presidential ambitions.

None of this bodes well for the Bush administration. The Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress means massive investigations of, and in all likelihood, criminal indictments of key Bush administration officials. “On the table” or “off the table,” impeachment may be inevitable if serious investigations into executive branch actions proceed unimpaired. If nothing else, the next two years should be the mother of all history lessons as Congressional investigations shed new light onto our close brush with fascism.

But if this is all on the horizon—if this is our future—why is George W. Bush still acting so smug and confident? There are two theories—either he’s a moron, or, perhaps, history will show that he was both brilliant and charismatic—a Connecticut Yankee who reinvented himself as a Jeffersonian man of the people, a regular guy who mangles the English language (which really comes from pompous Europeans anyway) with his down-home Texas drawl. So, if he’s not a moron, then why all the confidence? Ultimately, why does he think these investigations won’t proceed or won’t ever reach conclusion?

We were here in August of 2001

Let’s roll time back to 2001 for some insight here. August of 2001 was shaping up darkly for the new Bush administration. Classified documents from his father’s early tenure in the White House as vice president were due to be made public—shedding light on the Contra War as well as Reagan administration collusion with both Iran and Iraq. And Bush was making history, not for accomplishing anything, but for his record-breaking vacations at his Crawford, Texas ranch. Democrats controlled the Senate and progressives like Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone were beginning to raise hell—demanding that their colleagues not rubber-stamp Bush’s judicial appointments. And there was a major investigation into the contested Florida presidential vote that, it turned out, documented an Al Gore victory—which was released in early September. It looked like the Bush presidency would be in free-fall by mid-September, 2001.

Then September 11 happened. I’m not questioning why it happened. I’m not supporting or rejecting any theory on benign neglect or even collusion. I’m just saying it happened—a point we can all hopefully agree on. After September 11, everything else was off the table. It didn’t matter who actually won the 200 election. That was old news. We were “at war” and needed to rally behind our leaders—who or what they were was secondary. Questioning their legitimacy was off the table. It’s like someone took steel wool to our memory and our psyche.

In essence, in August 2001 we were at the same point in history where we are now with the Bush presidency on the precipice of collapse. Perhaps this is why Bush is so smug and confident. Catastrophe rescued his presidency once. And it may rescue it again.

The world is awash in weapons. And it’s also replete with images and narratives of American war crimes and militaristic arrogance. It’s populated with more and more people who have lost loved ones or had their lives destroyed at our hands. And it’s infected with ideologies that promise eternal peace as a reward for horrific violence. It’s also populated with Americans, who, like Tim McVeigh, we trained to hate and kill. You do the math. Another September 11 is possible. We can argue about strategies to prevent it. But ultimately there are things that are out of our control. How we react to such things, however, should never be out of our control. If there is a January surprise, let’s not fumble our democracy. Let’s rally around our ideals, not our supposed leaders.