Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why Chambliss Victory Was Both Expected and Doesn't Mean Much

by Norman Markowitz

Senator Saxby Chambliss, a right-wing Republican was re-elected in a runoff election in Georgia against his centrist opponent Jim Martin. The turnout was a little more than two million as against 3.7 million in the general election. Actually, Martin ran well ahead of Obama in the general election, since Obama brought out as I see it both African-American and other progressive voters for him and anti-African-American white voters (some of whom ended up voting for Martin to bring about the runoff) in the first election. With this kind of turnout in a right-wing dominated "right to work" Southern state with all of its historical baggage, this was to be expected.

David Gergen on CNN contended that this was a message to Obama to "govern from the Center rather than the Left" although I don't see how it should be taken in that light, since Obama lost the state the first time by a vote similar to Martin's defeat yesterday. It would make more political sense to say that if Obama pushed the Employee FreeChoice Act and a single payer national health program,(which would be changing the center by moving it to the left) many of those white voters who voted their prejudices today for a Senator who will fight to keep them poor and their employers as rich as possible would change politically.

But what may be more important is the entire media and the Democrats themselves running with the number 60 as a "filibuster proof" majority. This has been pushed hard since the election but, as a U.S. historian (and here I am not speaking as a Marxist historian which I am of course, as such) this has been nothing more than a symbolic issue. Filibusters were important in the 1950s and 1960s when Southern segregationist Democrats filibustered Civil Rights legislation whose strongest supporters were Northern Liberal-Labor Democrats. Lyndon Johnson's ability to get Republican support to break the Southern Segregationist filibuster in the Senate against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a major turning point in modern U.S. political history. But just because there are 59 Democrats and 41 Republicans doesn't mean. that the all of the Republicans would support a filibuster against progressive legislation(and it doesn't mean from the other side that all of the Democrats would oppose such a filibuster). Chambliss arrogantly and foolishly called himself the "41st" Senator, meaning to me that he saw himself as a replacement to Strom Thurmond, who as a segregationist Democrat was the filibuster champion of the Senate until Johnson broke the anti-Civil Rights Act filibuster and Thurmond joined the Republicans in 1964.

Let us say that the Obama administration has the votes to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. Chambliss and the great majority of the Republicans would probably try to filibuster it. Would George Voinovich Republican of of Ohio support such a filibuster. Given the role of labor in his state, I doubt it. Would Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania support such a filibuster? Given the role of labor in his state, I doubt it. Would Olympia Snow and Susan Collins, centrist Republicans from Maine, support such a filibuster? Even Norm Coleman if he ends up winning in Minnesota? I would doubt it. Attempts by the Republican leadership to coerce all Republicans to support such filibusters would further weaken their party.

Also, filibusters can and have been waited out and beaten. Here mass forces really come into play. For example, if the Republicans would launch a filibuster to stop a single payer national health program, this could easily have disastrous consequences for them, since filibusters are usually unpopular with large sections of the electorate, even those who don't necessarily support the legislation that the filibuster is attempting to kill without a vote. Filibusters, we should remember, while they are completely legal and sometimes even merited as an attempt in certain circumstances by a substantial minority to block a majority from enacting destructive legislation, are always seen as a tactic to thwart a majority vote, which is always contradictory in its relationship to representative democratic government.

Rather than encouraging President Elect Obama to retreat to a conservative "center," Chambliss election should encourage him to advance a progressive program, since a progressive program that changes the lives of the people of states like Georgia for the better is the only way to insure the defeat of politicians like Chambliss in the future.