Calling President Bush a lying, cheating scumbag will only get him re-elected

Mr Clinton's hard-right critics, not long on humour, were determined to portray him as a monster. This did not work

Of the making of books there is no end, especially in the United States on political topics. Whenever I come to Washington, I pay an early visit to a bookstore, to examine the recent stuff which has not been reviewed in the UK in order to assess the current state of the argument.

This time, there is a difference. Half the new titles read as if they had come straight from the Socialist Workers' Party bookshop. What about The Bush Haters' Handbook or Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and it's Time to Take it Back. The theme of whole shelves is easy to summarise: George Bush is a lying, cheating, thieving dumb scumbag - and he was never elected President anyway.

If you believe, as all sensible persons should, that the liberal left has nothing of value to contribute to debate, this does simplify browsing. There is no need to waste time with books whose authors' envenomed dementia shrieks from the title page.

There is a new joke in Washington which also captures the anti-Bush mood. In a school for the children of the affluent, a teacher asks her class of little boys what their fathers do. The answers are predictable: lawyer, doctor, accountant - until little Johnny. "My dad's a stripper in a gay bar.'' "What!'' "Yes, miss. He takes off all his clothes and people do unmentionable things to him.'' The schoolmistress rapidly changes the subject, but at the end of the lesson she asks Johnny if his father is really a gay stripper. "Oh no, miss, of course not. But you couldn't expect me to admit to the other kids that my dad works in the Bush administration.''

All this will come as tidings of great joy to Bush haters international. In Paris, they will be delighted to learn that even in the imperial capital, the bookstores are aflame with revolt; surely the regime of the hated tyrant Bush must be approaching its end?

Well, actually, no. On the contrary; the book wars will assist Mr Bush's re-election. Most normal Americans do not want to hate their President and they resent those who try to incite them to do so.

All presidents have an electoral advantage. They are not merely politicians; they are the commander-in-chief and the head of state, which enables them to rise above partisanship and to take on some of the attributes of monarchy. On polling day, this is probably worth about 5 per cent. In close elections, that can be decisive. In the last century, only three presidents who were themselves elected to office were unseated at the next election.

The problems of attacking an incumbent president even made matters easier for Bill Clinton, who was an implausible monarch. The Republican right hated Mr Clinton: one reason why the Democratic left are now trying to take revenge. But in politics, hatred is a bad counsellor. Though Mr Clinton may have been a liar and an adulterer, he was not a drug dealer or a murderer.

In other circumstances, it might have been possible to undermine President Clinton by a light touch of mockery. The Clintonites could have been portrayed as treating the White House as a cross between a junk shop and a brothel: the fixtures and fittings constantly wrenched from the walls, while every female intern needed her dry cleaner on 24-hour call.

But Mr Clinton's hard-right critics, not themselves long on humour, were not satisfied with laughing at his moral inadequacies. They were determined to portray him as a monster. This did not work. In middle America, the impeachment proceedings were unpopular. People did not want to see their President destroyed unless there was an overwhelming prosecution case, as opposed to a fricassee of peccadillo and paranoia. If Bill Clinton had been eligible to run for re-election, the impeachment hearings would have helped him.

President Bush is now the focus of hatred and wild allegations. This is equally unlikely to damage him, for its sole appeal is to those who would die under torture rather than vote Republican. It is also helping to ensure that when the Democratic Party selects its presidential candidate, it will choose the figure least likely to have a chance of beating Mr Bush. The magnetism of hatred is pulling the Democratic Party away from electability.

At moments, Howard Dean, the Democrats' front-runner, has seemed to revel in the hatred. Recently, he even appeared to give credence to the canard that the Saudis had given Mr Bush advance warning about 11 September, which the President disregarded because he wanted an excuse to invade Iraq and hand it over to big oil. That is as loony a tune as the certifiable ultra-right ever tried to play at President Clinton's non-funeral. The difference is that the Republicans' deranged supporters were never allowed near a presidential campaign, let alone at the head of the ticket.

Mr Dean was expected to make the early running in the Democrats' campaign by enthusing party activists. Then, as the serious candidates gained momentum, he would fade. That has not happened. The supposedly serious candidates have been bad at creating momentum. This is especially true of Joe Lieberman, the one Democrat who does look like a plausible president. Mr Dean, on the other hand, has not slowed down. His team had a clever idea: to use the internet to raise support and money. As a result, Howard Dean appears to have more of both than the other Democratic challengers put together

Indeed, he even seems to be beginning a process which was not expected to happen until he had wrapped up the nomination. It makes sense for any candidate to appeal to his party's more extreme supporters in order to persuade them to turn out in the primary elections, where not that many people vote. Once the primaries are over, the victor will normally move back towards the centre, to have the best chance of winning the presidency. But Mr Dean seems so confident that he is already making the occasional centrist gesture, even before the primaries have started.

The other week, he reminded his party that it was necessary to win the support of southern white males: the sort of chaps who would have a Confederate flag in the back of their pick-up truck. Howard Dean was right. It would be very hard for the Democrats to capture the presidency without carrying some southern states. But all his Democratic rivals chose to ignore the psephological truth of Mr Dean's assessment, and tried to use the Confederate flag to damage him.

It has not succeeded. Democrat activists seem to be so devoted to Mr Dean that they will forgive a brief lapse into tolerance towards the old south. That said, there is no evidence that Howard Dean could win any significant number of southern white male votes. He can forget about the Confederate flag. His appeal is to the type of American voter who is likely to have an Iraqi flag on his bumper sticker.

A lot could still go wrong for George Bush between now and the first Tuesday in November. In Iraq, he is at the mercy of events which he cannot control. But on present evidence, his political opponents seems determined to do everything possible to ensure his re-election.

Comments