eorge W Bush was elected in November 2000
in very dubious circumstances. Not only was he elected president
on a minority of the popular vote, but in Florida, where
his brother Jeb just happened to be governor, there was a
disputed election which hung on the hanging chads, which
were about the voting machines not working properly. The
Supreme Court, made up of a majority of Republican nominees,
stepped in to effectively hand the election to Bush. Some
people have, perhaps rightly, regarded this as a judicial
coup: the Supreme Court, rather than the American people,
choosing the president.
Bush’s problem has been that in office he has been
very far from effective. He was obsessed by Iraq from almost
the first day that he entered office, if not before, partly
because Iraq was in some senses his father’s unfinished
business. There is now a growing realisation that this preoccupation
blinded him and his administration to the real threat to
the United States from al-Qaeda, which became evident on
September 11. After 9/11 he in effect went into hiding for
three days whilst former President Bill Clinton did what
his is best at, which is meeting and greeting, hugging and
squeezing and being the people’s president. Bush is
not like that: he is awkward with people, perhaps because
he does not have the confidence, or let us be blunt, he is
not very clever, except in the sense that he has a very good
memory, but not much of an ability to theorise or conceptualise.
In his youth Bush had a serious alcohol problem, as well
as being a womaniser. He managed to avoid the Vietnam War
by getting his father to pull strings to get him enrolled
in the Texas Air Force National Guard. I do not think that
the Vietcong posed a real threat over the skies of West Texas.
He then became a born-again Christian, and at one point had
an argument with his father at the White House about who
could be saved through Jesus, which resulted in evangelist
Billy Graham being called to the White House to resolve the
dispute in Bush Junior’s favour.
Bush’s connections with the oil industry are notorious
and give us some hints as to the current events in Iraq,
as well as his apparently limitless ability to raise money
from corporate interests for his campaigns. As well as big
oil, Bush has spared no effort to support drug companies
and the insurance industry. Special interests are apparently
in his interest, if not that of ordinary Americans.
The election in November seems likely to prove a close-run
thing, despite the early assumption that an easy victory
in Iraq would bring Bush a victory at the ballot box. Things
turn out to be not so straight forward. Bush posing on the
deck of an aircraft carrier, acting up the style of a war
hero, which he clearly is not, announced the end of the war,
which of course has not ended, as more and more American
troops get returned in stars and stripes draped coffins to
such an extent that the Department of Defense has tried to
sensor media coverage. Bush is presiding over a second Vietnam,
the war he was too much of a coward to fight in.
In contrast, Bush’s Democratic opponent John Kerry
did fight in the Vietnam War and when he returned home he
campaigned against the war. Kerry is a New Englander in the
Jack Kennedy mold, and of course being married to an heiress
does not hurt in terms of the ability to raise cash for his
campaign. I would expect that the unions will pitch into
the Democratic campaign as ever, particularly because not
just of the loss of jobs in the United States but also because
Bush has openly declared that the export of jobs from America
to low wage economies is actually a good thing. Kerry is
obviously not a socialist and in his many years in the Senate
he has been tainted by contributions to his campaign funds
from some special interest groups, but heavens we know what
the American political process is like and that fighting
campaigns is a very expensive business.
In 2000, Ralph Nader was widely blamed for having as the
Green candidate split the left of centre vote and let Bush
in. Of course this is always a problem with a first past
the post electoral system, particularly as in America when
it is combined with the arcane system of the electoral college.
Nader would be stupid to run against Kerry this time round
when all the opinion polls show the race to be finely balanced.
Apparently he does intend to run and this might provide Bush
with the second term his father failed to achieve.
The patterns of American politics have changed over the
years. The bedrocks of the Democratic vote have been in decline.
With the disappearance of traditional industries as blue
collar work has disappeared or been exported to Mexico, the
power of the unions has been in steep decline, although there
is some evidence that this is changing as Latino migrants
are swept up more and more in the union movement. The Catholic
and Jewish vote is less reliable for the Democrats than used
to be, although the Jewish vote can be counted on to a great
extent, but Jews are actually a tiny minority of the population
and except in certain states like New York not very significant.
The Jewish influence in Hollywood is much more significant,
but not so much as voters, but as significant contributors
to campaign funds.
With black voters it is not their loyalty
to the party which is a problem - only a tiny minority
every vote Republican - but the registration and turnout
are low. If Kerry was sensible, which he may not be, he would
turn to leading African Americans, such as Jesse Jackson,
to try to boost registration and turnout, since in some states,
such as North Carolina and Florida, this could be the key
to the result. Jackson has already pledged to get the vote
out and is clearly determined to see that Bush is not re-elected.
But as with Dukakis in 1988 there is a danger that a white
presidential candidate from the North East may be unwilling
to use Jackson in too prominent a role for fear of alienating
white voters, particularly in the ever important South,
where increasingly elections are won or lost.
The outcome of the presidential election is very uncertain,
perhaps much more so than it was a few months ago. Bush is
not on automatic pilot for a second term and when it comes
down to presidential debates in the wake of the national
conventions Kerry can clearly beat Bush, not just in rhetoric
and argument, but also in tests of personal character. Those
of us who want a calmer and more peaceful world must surely
hope that Kerry does it.