Fear and loathing on the road to the White House

The talk is all about guns, gay rights and religion. Rupert Cornwell examines why the candidates are ignoring swing voters to fire up their core constituencies with alternative visions of America
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If you don't talk about morality in US politics, you're going to lose. Never have the candidates taken that old adage to heart as in this election year.

If you don't talk about morality in US politics, you're going to lose. Never have the candidates taken that old adage to heart as in this election year.

As the campaigns hot up and the Democrats prepare for their convention next week, President George Bush has been stalking the swing states and the South, telling their good citizens that he alone shares their values. Not to be outdone, John Kerry criss-crosses much of the same territory, arguing that his values are the ones which made America great, and which will see the country through its present troubles.

Normally elections where a president is running for a second term are clear-cut affairs. Either he triumphs handsomely (Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996) or is resoundingly rejected (Jimmy Carter in 1980 or George Bush senior in 1992). In each case, voters had four years to make up their minds about whether the incumbent is up to the job, and pronounced accordingly. Not so perhaps this time.

True, most polls have Mr Kerry going into the summer convention season with a 2 or 3 per cent lead in a straight match with Mr Bush. He remains ahead, albeit by an even smaller margin, if the independent candidate Ralph Nader (whose campaign seems to be fading) is included. Either way, however, for statistical purposes the race is a dead heat - and the picture is the same in Florida, Ohio, and many other of the 16 or 17 "battleground" states, where the election will be decided.

The real truth, however, is that battle has not really been joined. For one thing, the Massachusetts senator is a largely unknown quantity; in a sense the contest is still George Bush versus an unspecified Democrat. For another, the issues are conspicuous by their absence on the campaign trail.

If ever there was an important election this should be it - a controversial foreign war, a stuttering economic recovery, a renewed healthcare crisis in which 40 million Americans are uninsured yet costs for the rest are soaring, and massive deficits which are mortgaging future generations to the indulgences of the present one. Yet election 2004 has barely touched on these issues. Instead the argument has been about "values", encapsulated by the "three gs" of "God, guns and gays".

By any standards the four candidates are exceptionally rich, from John Kerry with his wife's $1bn Heinz grocery fortune, to Dick Cheney and John Edwards, the two vice-presidential candidates, estimated to be worth some $70m to $80m apiece, followed by George Bush with "only" $20m or so. Yet this unrepresentative and exceptionally wealthy quartet of white men seemingly spend most of their time arguing over who best understands and embodies the "values of the American people".

But there is a method in the madness. The US electorate is not merely divided, political scientists argue: it is polarised as rarely in America's history. The origins of the split lie in the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s. The split was deepened by Mr Clinton, who generated love and hate among voters as few before him - and deepened further by Mr Bush, who inspires loathing among Democrats to rival or surpass what Republicans felt for Mr Clinton.

Thus the new assumption gaining ground in both campaigns - that with the country divided into two virtually equal blocs, the outcome may not be determined in the classic way, by a dwindling band of independent, genuinely undecided swing voters in the centre. Instead, the key for each party is to fire up its core constituencies with fear and loathing, to get them to vote to keep the competing ideology out. Karl Rove, Mr Bush's master strategist, has publicly argued that the last election (where Mr Bush actually lost the popular vote by 500,000 to Al Gore) would not even have been close, had the Republicans managed to get to the polls four million evangelical Christians who in the event stayed at home.

Seen in that light, the goings-on of the past few days fall into place - from Mr Kerry's talk about "letting America be America again", to the Republicans' insistence that at this hour of great national issues, the United States Senate discusses not Iraq, healthcare or unemployment. Rather it devoted two precious days to debating a constitutional amendment to gay marriage.

No matter that the Bill had no realistic chance of securing the two thirds majority needed for passage of a constitutional amendment. In fact, it failed to win even a simple majority. Republicans were trying to make the point that they were the party of decent, old- fashioned American values - values that Mr Kerry and every other Democrat who opposed the amendment were trying to subvert. No less noteworthy, despite the entreaties of three former presidents - Republican as well as Democrat - and every police association in the land, Mr Bush is showing no haste in moving to renew a 10-year ban in semi-automatic weapons which expires this autumn. And why? In order not to upset the gun lobby, which likes to see itself as a representative of unvarnished frontier values, just like this President.

Then there is the ever-present religion. Mr Bush wears his faith on his sleeve, and churchgoing Americans (some 60 per cent of the population) are very appreciative of it. As a result the reserved north-eastern Catholic Mr Kerry has been obliged to have himself pictured attending Mass, and discussing the importance of his faith with television interviewers.

But beyond "values" there is a policy void. Mr Bush has given scant clue of his programme if he does win re-election. But at least in his first term he ran on a specific slogan - "Compassionate Conservatism" - however much his critics now complain that his policies in office have given the lie to it.

As for Mr Kerry, he has yet to find any overarching theme for his campaign.

Thus far, the Massachusetts senator has run on his biography as a Vietnam veteran and war hero, and a senator of 20 years standing. But what exactly he stands for remains a mystery. The closest thing the Democrats have to a campaign theme right now is the "Two Americas" stump speech of Mr Kerry's vice-presidential nominee, Senator Edwards of North Carolina. The presidential candidate has stolen the line for himself, decrying an America in which the rich and the poor inhabit separate universes, from taxation to health care and educational opportunity.

Mr Edwards, all youthful charm and energy, has proved a highly popular choice among Democrats. He also comfortably beats his opposite number Mr Cheney in direct poll match-ups. The exercise is theoretical - Americans on Tuesday 2 November will be voting for President and the respective running mates will be little more than an afterthought. Even so, a few more Republicans are now wondering whether, with the contest so close, Mr Cheney should be replaced by a more voter-friendly figure like Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, or Colin Powell, the Secretary of State.

It would be astonishing if Mr Cheney were dropped. The Bushes are famously loyal to those who support the cause. To sacrifice the most powerful vice-president in recent American history, and a prime architect of the Iraq war, would be to do two things that George Bush hates doing - admitting he made a mistake and, by changing his mind, allowing himself to be seen as indecisive and thus "weak". Even so, his father may have carried loyalty to a fault in 1992, by sticking to the hapless Dan Quayle.

But whatever happens to Dick Cheney, the ball is in Mr Kerry's court. He has been campaigning for more than 18 months, but for most Americans the questions remains: Who is he, and what exactly would he do if he became the 44th president? The Bush/Cheney campaign has spent $80m-plus in television ads, trying to depict him as a typical "tax-and-spend" Massachusetts liberal out of touch with mainstream opinion, and a "flip-flopper" on the issues who cannot be trusted to keep America safe.

Next week, Democrats have their great chance to "introduce" John Kerry at the convention in Boston. The climax comes on 29 July, when Mr Kerry formally accepts the nomination. Such speeches, overwritten to a fault, rarely live long in memory, nor provide more than a temporary "bounce" for the candidate. This time however, it could be different.

The bounce may well be small (Mr Kerry will do well to come out of Boston more than seven or eight points up), but in this especially tight-fought campaign, where so many minds are made up, it could be decisive. With Mr Bush's approval ratings stuck below the 50 per cent level which usually points to re-election, the election right now is Mr Kerry's to lose. The President is a known quantity; whatever he says or does now is likely to change few minds. Not so the Democrat. "What I want people to take away from Boston is the sense that I am strong," Mr Kerry told The Wall Street Journal last week. If he can get that message across, and find a theme that strikes a chord, he may be very hard to beat.

For "values", so often the Republicans' trump card, may no longer be one. For the time being at least, it is they who have been divided by the gay marriage issue, not the Democrats. The wedge has been driven not into the Democratic electorate, prising away socially conservative blue-collar voters - but into Republican ranks, upsetting traditionalists who believe such matters should be left to individual states.

"Values" will not be overmuch in evidence at the Republican convention in New York next month, to judge from a provisional speaking line-up that is distinctly light on fire-breathing. The party may be mindful of 1992, when a prime-time philippic by the right-winger Pat Buchanan promising "religious war" against godless liberals, may have scared centrists away from the elder Bush. This time the featured stars are attractive Republican moderates like Arnold Schwarzenegger and John McCain, not the ideological warriors like Tom DeLay, the House majority leader.

And who will be speaking at the Democratic convention? None other than Ron Reagan, son of the former president who is the supreme embodiment of Republican "values", to press the issue of stem cell research which this Republican President opposes.

Most important, the Iraq war is subtly turning the "values" argument against Mr Bush. His chosen image as symbol of American strength, honesty and goodness has been undermined by the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison, by evidence that the President grossly overstated the WMD case for war, and by the report on the 11 September terrorist strikes to be published this week, casting more doubt on the proclaimed links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida. The President will try to change the subject - but, Democrats will reply, who's the "flip-flopper" now?


26-30 July: Democratic Convention, Boston - John Kerry nominated as Democrat contender

26 July: Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and the 2000 Democrat challenger Al Gore, address convention

29 July: John Kerry gives prime-time, televised speech to accept nomination with running mate John Edwards

30 August-2 September: Republican Convention, New York - Republicans crown George Bush as candidate

31 August: Convention addressed by Arnold Schwarzenegger

2 September: Mr Bush addresses nation

14 September: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin, go to polls for primaries

30 September: Presidential debate, University of Miami

5 October: Vice-presidential debate, Cleveland

8 October: Presidential debate, St Louis, Missouri

13 October: Presidential debate in Tempe, Arizona

2 November: US presidential election