Republicans race for hollow prize Candidates debate... a nation yawns

Campaigners may promise the earth but presidents struggle to deliver. John Carlin reports
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The Independent Online
HERE'S a US presidential election quiz. Who is the more honest of the two front-runners for the Republican candidacy, Bob Dole or Steve Forbes?

Mr Dole is the wily Washington insider, a veteran of the Senate, who does not have one policy to speak of, whose attitude towards public opinion is "you hum it and I'll play it". His lust to become president is so transparent and all-consuming that when told last year that to win he needed to become more like Ronald Reagan, he replied that he was indeed "willing to be another Ronald Reagan".

Mr Forbes is the political ingenu, the goofy millionaire who promises to shake up the income tax system, driven by the conviction that a flat tax rate of 17 per cent will inject new life into the American economy and cleanse the bruised body politic.

The answer: Mr Dole is more honest.

The question is an urgent one because tomorrow the presidential campaign begins in earnest when Republicans in the state of Iowa gather to select the candidate they would like to see take on Bill Clinton on 5 November. After Iowa the Republican roadshow moves on to other states until, within six weeks or so, the electoral sub-plot unravels and the identity of the party nominee is revealed.

So why is Mr Dole more honest? Because he knows, better than anyone, that campaign promises are a farce. But also because Mr Forbes, as a long- time student of American politics, knows it almost as well.

In British general election campaigns promises are serious business. The leader of the party that emerges with a majority in the House of Commons is automatically empowered to translate promises into action. An American president has no such power. He may propose, but he cannot dispose.

When Mr Clinton said in a speech before Parliament last November that he was glad his forebears had emigrated from Britain to the US because he had been spared the "grilling" prime ministers must endure at Question Time, he omitted to observe that one reward British prime ministers receive for their supposed ordeal is considerably more power than American presidents to enforce their will.

Mr Clinton won the 1992 election on promises to cut taxes for the middle class, to open up the military to gays, to reform election campaign spending, to introduce a free child vaccination programme and, the pillar of his electoral platform, to reform the extortionate health care system. Once in office he was obliged either to backtrack on, or abandon altogether, his best laid plans. The ship of state, assailed between the Scylla and Charybdis of the House of Representatives and the Senate, ran aground.

Bill Clinton discovered, as all preceding presidents have, that his capacity to enact policy was frustratingly curtailed by a constitutional mechanism of checks and balances useful 200 years ago, when the Founding Fathers were battling to cobble together a Union of squabbling states, but increasingly unwieldy and unsatisfactory to the public in the modern age. As Harry Truman once remarked: "They talk about the power of the president. They talk about how I can just push a button to get things done. Why, I spend most of my time kissing somebody's ass."

But it is not all one-way traffic. Members of Congress spend much of their time doing the same thing, and with no more satisfactory results. Newt Gingrich's Republicans seized control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections of November 1994 and, amid great pomp and thunder, vowed to enact the revolutionary manifesto they called the Contract with America. Today two thirds of the Contract lies crumpled in the Senate wastepaper basket. What the Senate did not veto, President Clinton has.

In the face of such paralysis Americans remain passive spectators. They know the popular mandate, as expressed in elections, will not be enforced, yet neither they nor their leaders have demonstrated the slightest glimmer of enthusiasm for amending the world's oldest constitution. A Time/CNN poll in 1994 found that 91 percent of respondents had little or no faith in the ability of Washington to get things done. Polls conducted early in 1993, before Mr Clinton's inauguration, showed that seven out of 10 Americans were optimistic about the next four years, but just seven out of 100 believed the new president would bother even to try to keep all his campaign promises.

So if this year's presidential election campaign appears to be a circus, a make-believe extravaganza far removed from the realities of people's lives, here lies much of the explanation.

In a book just published called The Frozen Republic, Daniel Lazare, a journalist and historian, says that the American system of government is the most inert in the industrialised world. And the citizens, he says, are shut out of what little action there is. "Since voters have little way of holding the president accountable in a system as fragmented as the American one, the only thing they have to go on is the quality of his performance - how he looks, how he talks, the success with which he is able to persuade a diverse electorate that he has each and every person's interests most at heart."

Americans know this is what is going on. And as every election comes and goes they become, as the polls reveal, progressively more cynical. This helps account, perversely, for the success Mr Forbes is enjoying. The millionaire publisher's flat tax notions, and his denunciation of his party rivals as children of the iniquitous "Washington culture", might strike some chords. But he speaks with the mechanical monotony of a Dalek; he has the social skills of a gawky adolescent; and he never, ever blinks.

Yet he has managed to capture the hearts of America's fickle voters - fickle, again, because of the perceived fatuousness of the exercise - precisely because he is so bad a performer, so abysmally untelegenic, that people tell themselves, "maybe he isn't a phoney". So Mr Dole, seeming to have grasped that this year's election has become a parody of a parody, a Monty Python version of America's TV game democracy, has suddenly begun making a virtue of his own charisma deficit.

The conventional wisdom after his embarrassingly wooden televised rebuttal last month of Mr Clinton's flamboyant State of the Union address, was that the old senator was dead in the water, that the Republicans would be doomed if they chose him. In a campaign speech on Tuesday, he decided to draw comic attention to his oratorical weakness: "I know you've had a couple of days of meetings and speeches," he said. "So I thought I might liven things up by giving my State of the Union response again."

Self-deprecation is not a novel feature of the American campaign repertoire. Senator Dole was making good on one of the few promises he was able to keep: he was playing Ronald Reagan, who had the habit of making fun of his own vulnerabilities, his advancing years for example, as a means of nipping his opponents' criticisms in the bud.

As the campaign unfolds, Bob Dole will no doubt try a few new tricks too. Winning is the thing. Whether he ends up in the White House, or whether Mr Clinton remains in it, little will change. America, confident that no amount of electoral bombast will shake the constitutional inertia, will go about its business regardless.