America's non-party rises high in polls

If Clinton and Dole continue to campaign as they have begun, they may endanger the US political system, writes John Carlin

"In the United States there are two political parties of equal size," Gore Vidal wrote in a newspaper article 16 years ago. "One is the party that votes in presidential elections. The other is the party that does not vote in presidential elections."

With this year's election shaping up to be what veteran Washington insiders are describing as the most unseemly, vacuous contest of modern times, it will be interesting to see whether, for the first time since 1924, Vidal's non-voters defeat the voters.

In an age of corporate lay-offs and dizzying technological change, the majority of Americans are seeking a reassuring vision of the future from their leaders. But all indications are that the outcome of the election this November will turn on questions that bear little relevance to the lives of ordinary people.

Take Whitewater. The verdict in the Whitewater trial last week could yet prove to be the election year's most decisive episode. The news that President Bill Clinton's former business partners had been found guilty of fraud infused new blood into the hitherto anaemic campaign of Robert Dole, the Republican presidential candidate. Mr Dole's supporters, who had been depressed by surveys consistently showing that their man lagged 20 points behind Mr Clinton in the polls, have found a cause. No matter that only a handful of Americans have any understanding of the details of a murky Arkansas land deal executed almost 20 years ago. No matter that the president has not been charged with wrongdoing.

The Whitewater verdict has revived the ghost that haunted Mr Clinton in the 1992 campaign. Once again his character is in question. Mr Dole, according to critics within his own party, is not only singularly untelegenic, he is astoundingly bereft of ideas. But maybe these deficiencies will not count against him after all. Maybe all the Second World War veteran has to do to win the election is sit woodenly on the sidelines and wait for Mr Clinton to self-destruct.

"This election won't pit Bill Clinton against Bob Dole after all," wrote Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal on Friday. "The main event is going to be Bill Clinton vs himself, the virtuoso pol vs the suspect character."

The response of the White House to the Whitewater verdict was supposed to have been an exercise in damage control. But all that Mr Clinton's spinmasters achieved by handing out a package of documents to the press with quotes from jurors who absolved the president of any blame was to highlight their anxiety, and reinforce the suspicion that there is something the president wants to hide.

The suspicion has also been revived in recent weeks that Mr Clinton is unable to repress his goatish instincts in the presence of women he finds attractive. There was the ludicrous crack he made, with President Alberto Fujimori of Peru at his side, when inspecting the frozen 500-year-old mummy of a teenage Incan girl. She was "good-looking", he said. He would have liked to "date" her.

No sooner had the knowing grins slipped off the faces of America's TV viewing public than they learned, on Memorial Day of all days, that Mr Clinton's lawyer had sought to delay a pending sexual harassment suit beyond the November election by invoking the president's need to be free of such distractions while "on active duty".

Mr Clinton's attempt to play the commander-in-chief card doubly back- fired, because it allowed his opponents to remind the electorate of another old ghost he had hoped to have laid to rest, his avoidance of the Vietnam draft.

Mr Dole may be no live-wire, but his campaign staff know a good thing when they see it. Swiftly they set about producing a television commercial, aired for the first time last week, which began with an announcer saying, "Bill Clinton: he's really something." With the Status Quo song "You're in the army now" playing in the background, the commercial shows Mr Clinton playing golf, jogging, duck-hunting. "Active duty?" the announcer inquires.

The White House response was to accuse the Dole campaign of firing cheap shots. "This ad distorts the truth," whined Mike McCurry, the presidential spokesman. Whereupon Mr Clinton's campaign team promptly premiered a cheap and distorting TV special of their own, calling Mr Dole "a quitter" because of his decision to resign from the Senate to focus on the presidential election.

Scott Reed, Mr Dole's campaign manager, was, naturally, outraged. "On 15 May Bill Clinton warmly praised Bob Dole as he resigned from the Senate," Mr Reed fumed. "Today Bill Clinton viciously attacks him for the same decision. That is the kind of hypocrisy that frustrates so many voters."

Mr McCurry, who may be relied upon to continue dancing the faux outrage minuet with Mr Reed all the way through to November, volunteered a thought last week which, despite his waning credibility, did have the ring of truth to it. "This campaign turned very nasty and very ugly very quickly," he said, "once the Republicans became desperate about their situation." What Mr McCurry then failed to explain, however, was why the president had not responded with the Olympian disdain the seemingly woebegone Republicans deserved. He might then have avoided making the potentially unnerving discovery in Friday morning's newspapers that his poll lead over Mr Dole had slipped from 20 to 16 points.

But if Mr Dole appears to have emerged the winner from the spats of the last week, the biggest loser appears to be the system he and Mr Clinton represent. The results of a poll released on Wednesday of 600 voters and 600 non-voters showed that both groups, by margins of more than 70 per cent, distrusted Washington equally. Which suggests that if Mr Clinton and Mr Dole continue in their present electioneering vein, and those expressing suspicion of Washington follow the logic of their convictions and stay away on 5 November, Gore Vidal's dream could come true. Two thirds of the electorate might fail to turn up at the polls, whereupon the US people would be in a position to invoke Article Five of the constitution and summon a new constitutional convention where, as Mr Vidal wrote, "we can devise new political arrangements".

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