A big year up at the White House

America's politicians may be gearing up for November's presidential election, but the nation is in cynical mood, says John Carlin
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The Independent Online
Five Republicans who would be President

Bob Dole Wounded Second World War hero, Republican majority leader in the Senate who has served in Congress for 35 years. The consummate Washington insider, he has taken instructions from the polls and joined the chorus denouncing the iniquities of "big government". Described as "Blob Dough" in a recent cartoon, he displays clarity only in his despair to win the presidency at the third and final time of asking.

Steve Forbes Heir to the Forbes publishing fortune. Has surprised by pulling ahead of the pack, chasing Bob Dole, though he remains far back in second place in the polls. He owes his current (flash in the pan?) success to a spate of TV advertisements selling a simple idea: swap the progressive tax system for a flat-rate tax of 17 per cent and, hey presto, Washington will be purified and the economy will grow.

Phil Gramm Former Democrat senator from Texas, he is tougher than any congressional peers on "welfare scroungers" and suchlike. Also tough on taxes, immigrants and Clinton's Bosnia policy. Despite raising more campaign cash than any other candidate except Bob Dole, he is trailing, suggesting that he was right to wonder whether someone as ugly and conservative could ever get elected.

Lamar Alexander This former governor of Tennessee makes a virtue of being a Washington outsider, an image he cultivates by appearing without tie in his checked cotton shirt. Plugs the notion that America's problems will be resolved by devolving power to the states. Bland, amiable, solicitous, he is the ideal next-door neighbour. Some believe he is the dark horse candidate to watch.

Pat Buchanan Best known as a CNN talk-show host, he wrote speeches for President Reagan but suffers from an incapacity to leaven the harshness of his rhetoric with the Old Gipper's velvet touch. Gay-basher who proposes building an iron curtain along the Mexican border, he scores populist points with his calls for protectionism, isolationism and jingoism. Too offensively radical to have any chance of winning.

This is the serious stuff happening in America today: the middle classes, increasingly dependent on two incomes to sustain the material standards enjoyed by previous generations, do not rise in protest in response to the stagnation of their wages because they live in constant fear of losing their jobs. The Dow-Jones index breaks new records almost daily and Wall Street traders raise cheers at the news that national productivity is improving and that yet another company has "downsized" to cut costs. If there is a difference between the predicaments of Americans and Western Europeans, it is this: the gap between rich and poor in America is the widest in the industrialised world, and is becoming wider at a faster rate than anywhere else.

By way of compensation for the shortage of bread, one of the circus diversions on offer this year will be that old favourite, the race for the White House. Enjoyed mostly on television, the appeal of the presidential election contest derives from its capacity to combine the thrill of organised sport with the drama of the chat show. There was a hope that 1996 might see the injection of an elevating third factor, something noble and visionary, but that faded with General Colin Powell's decision in November to put family before country.

The election spectacle will be conducted in two parts. First, the Republican candidates, a baleful lot described in one New York Times column as an appropriate cast for a film noir, will be tearing each other to pieces in television commercials in an attempt to secure their party's nomination. But the audience for this spectacle will not be making the networks rich. An indicator was provided by CNN in November. When the leading Republican candidates all appeared together for a debate on Larry King Live, only 800,000 households tuned in - fewer than those who watch reruns of Are you being served? on public television.

The chances that interest will perk up in part two of the election are reduced by the likelihood that Bob Dole will be the man to go head-to- head against President Clinton in the second half of the year. Mr Dole has gravitas but no charm. Mr Clinton has charm but no gravitas. This presents media commentators with a problem. What they will do is strive to make up for the low quality of the drama by emphasising the intensity of the sport, by conveying a sense that, unexciting as the two candidates might be, they are evenly matched and sure to engage in a race to the finish.

If all this seems rather cynical, it has the merit of reflecting fairly faithfully the public mood. The Republicans won control of Congress for the first time in 40 years in November 1994 - not, as conservative commentators maintained at the time, because of an "ideological" shift in the American landscape but because, by campaigning against "Washington business as usual", they tapped into a rich vein of national disgust. The voters' hope was that honourable government would somehow translate into a stronger economy, higher wages and more secure jobs. The Republicans, however, have failed to temper the disgust and, having raised expectations so high, have succeeded only in deepening the cynicism.

They did not, for example, live up to their promise to address the question of campaign finance reform. So long as each senator finds himself having to raise $6m in order to be elected, so long will law-making in America be an exercise disproportionately determined by moneyed special interests.

No more glaring example exists of the institutional corruption to which Washington politicians are prey. The zealous Republican "freshmen" realised this when they arrived on Capitol Hill a year ago. But now, having tasted power and discovered that it is far easier to raise money as an incumbent - because an elected legislator is in a far stronger position to provide favours and influence to wealthy donors than a would-be legislator - they have concurred with their seniors that the issue does not represent as high a priority as they had initially thought.

Which is one reason why last August, eight months into the Republican "revolution", a poll by a non-partisan group called American Talk Issues found that 73 per cent of Americans persisted in believing that "politicians work for themselves and their own careers, not the people they represent"; 81 per cent believed "government tax policies help large corporations and the wealthy more than average people".

Popular perceptions are supported by the evidence of the vast increase in donations to the Republican Party by the likes of Philip Morris, the tobacco giant, since the 1994 election. No bigger campaign donors exist than the corporations that run America's armaments industry: this might help explain why Congress resolved last year to award $7bn more in defence spending than the Pentagon had requested.

The government shut-down that has straddled the old and new year has provided a fitting conclusion to the year of dashed hopes. The disagreement between the White House and Congress which precipitated the shut-down, keeping 280,000 federal workers away from work and thousands more without pay since 16 December, goes to the heart of the national debate unleashed by Newt Gingrich and his Republican footsoldiers at the start of 1995.

Both Democrats and Republicans actually do start their arguments in the real world, from a recognition of the anxiety that is assailing the voting middle classes. But the manner in which the debate has been conducted has served not so much to provide remedies for economic malaise as to reinforce widespread dissatisfaction with the politicians in Washington.

The impression is created that ordinary people's economic concerns are viewed by the politicians, who spend heavily on focus groups to establish precisely what those concerns are, as simply the raw material with which to shape their electoral sales pitches.

One of the principal arguments test-marketed by the Republicans to win the 1994 congressional election goes like this: America will become prosperous and happy again if it can destroy "the liberal welfare state" (or, as Senator Phil Gramm puts it, "get people off the cart and start pulling with the rest of us") and balance the budget within a biblically resonant seven years. Mr Clinton's Democrats, bereft of alternative plans of their own, merely disagree.

The likely winner in this particular game is Mr Clinton. Simply by standing still, he has given the pleasingly presidential impression of defending the American people against yet another piece of congressional chicanery. Since the Republicans have defined balancing the federal budget as their most sacred and urgent task, it is hardly surprising that large sectors of the public should have viewed as sordid the Republicans' resolve to cut capital gains taxes - or grant rewards to their electoral benefactors - while proposing cuts in health care for the elderly and the abolition of benefits to single teenage mothers.

None of which bears any great relevance to the serious economic questions of the day, determined as they are not by governments but the uncertainties of the free market. Wall Street continues to be perky; the middle classes continue to fret, and America's poor continue to lead lives of deeper indignity and less hope than the unemployed of Britain, Germany or France. The only thing one can say about the American year in politics is that, for the moment, things do not look too good for whoever turns out to be the 1996 Republican presidential candidate.

While a year ago the conventional Washington wisdom was that Mr Clinton was dead in the water, today he is the punters' favourite. He stands higher in the polls than at any point in the past two years, comfortably ahead of the Republicans in general and Mr Dole in particular. However, three years ago the media were hailing the arrival of a new Democratic Era. A year ago it was the Republican Era. Eleven months from now, who knows what might happen?

And, now that the Republicans' revolutionary experiment is fizzling out and the two parties will resume their traditional battle for the soft American centre, who - apart from the interested parties themselves - cares?