Over the past week, there may have been a change in the American political atmosphere. Though this has not yet shown up in the opinion polls, President George Bush may have recruited four important new allies. That could help him to victory. In no particular order, they are: the American economy, the new Iraqi government, Michael Moore and Lord Butler's report.
It appears that the American people are beginning to realise that they are in the midst of an economic recovery. Their economic confidence is beginning to catch up with the rate of job creation. This, of course, is the recovery that should not be happening. Economists thought that they knew all about the average US household. Its living rooms and bedrooms were full of furniture and electronic equipment; its kitchens, of white goods; its garages, of automobiles; its bank and credit card accounts, of red ink. In such circumstances, there could be no question of a consumer-led recovery. The shopping malls would be sad places while Americans paid off debts and increased savings.
That has not happened. Americans have gone on spending and borrowing, encouraged by some of the lowest interest rates in post-war history. That was probably the last big strategic decision which Alan Greenspan will take as chairman of the Federal Reserve, and it will have a crucial influence on his historical reputation. Was he the most brilliant central banker of all time, who kept calm when everyone was worried about deflation, stayed calm when the anxieties switched to inflation and steered the American economy past every wrecking rock? Or was he utterly irresponsible in keeping interest rates so low while inflationary pressures grew? We shall know the answer in about two years, but whatever the ultimate economic verdict, the short-term consequences can only help an incumbent President. A few months ago, I wrote that Mr Bush would need to be able to claim that sort of happy days are sort of here again. It now looks as if he might be able to drop the "sort of".
In Iraq, happy days are some way off. We are still at the mercy of the terror of events. But there does seem to have been a change of mood over the past few days. It is hard for anyone to argue that the transition to an Iraqi government is not a mark of progress. "Let freedom reign" may be an overstatement. "Let us hope that at last we are getting somewhere" would be more accurate. But it will now be harder for the President's opponents to claim that he has led the country into an endless morass.
Not that this will deter Michael Moore. He has made millions at the box office, with more to come. Millions of Americans hang on his every gag, and the sillier the better. But box office success will not necessarily translate to the ballot box. Mr Moore is enthusing the anti-Bush movement, and that is a problem for John Kerry.
Mr Kerry knows that in order to win, he has to appeal to middle America which means distancing himself from his Massachusetts liberal background. But Michael Moore is recruiting a lot of Kerry supporters who want him to revel in ultra-liberalism. He realises that this would be folly. The same sort of left-wing activists were the core supporters of George McGovern in 1972; look what happened to him. They also mobilised behind Howard Dean's campaign earlier this year, which is one reason why Mr Dean did not win the Democratic nomination. But if, enthused by Michael Moore, the Deanies give the impression that they have taken over the Kerry campaign, Senator Kerry will do almost as badly against President Bush as Governor Dean would have done.
The danger for Mr Kerry is that many of the Michael Moore radicals will become so disillusioned with him that they end up by voting for Ralph Nader - but not before they have alienated a lot of voters in the key states. Michael Moore will help John Kerry to pile up huge majorities in Georgetown, Hollywood and Manhattan. But in Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania, there will be a lot of disapproval. Many voters will turn against those whom they suspect of not only trying to trash the President, but American values and America itself. Whatever his own objectives, Michael Moore could help George Bush to be re-elected.
So could Robin Butler and his committee. We can be sure that they have no intention of intervening in American politics. They are indeed trying to banish all thought of political consequences from their deliberations. They are concentrating on the facts, as it was always certain that they would.
There has been a leak to suggest that the report will be bad news for the Government and for some senior figures in the security services. This chimes with a comment I heard from someone who ought to know: "There will be no comfort for anyone."
That was always the probable outcome. Those who thought that Lord Butler would produce a bland report could not have known him or his team. Leaving the politicians to one side, the three public servants on the committee, Robin Butler himself, John Chilcot and Peter Inge are all men whom nothing would deflect from the pursuit of truth.
When it chose them, No 10 made a hideous mistake; other senior figures might have been less ruthless. They all believe in the integrity of the governing process. They all have the highest standards and a strong sense of propriety. High standards, integrity, propriety: how did Tony Blair ever allow people like that to sit in judgement on him?
So by the middle of next week, he is likely to be in trouble. That could be good news for George Bush. In the United States, Tony Blair's reputation stands as high as Margaret Thatcher's did. Nothing that Lord Butler writes is likely to undermine that. The majority reaction will be along the following lines: "If that wonderful Tony Blair can get into a tangle on intelligence matters, this only goes to show how difficult they are - in which case, we should not hold the President's mistakes against him."
George Bush is a staunch and generous friend. He will not want Tony Blair to get into any trouble whatsoever. Yet as foreign political rows need to be on a very large scale to register on middle America's radar screen it is in his interests that the Butler report should land the PM in a crisis, though not a terminal one.
It is far too early to predict the outcome of the election, and anyone who tries to do so at this stage risks looking very foolish on the first Wednesday in November. Since 1960 there have been 11 presidential elections and the outcome was predictable this far in advance in only three of them; 1964, 1972 and 1984. The 2004 race will join the majority, but I will hazard a guess. I think that George Bush will be re-elected by a slightly greater margin than he achieved four years ago. I also think that the outcome will be close enough to make it possible to identify a decisive factor: Tony Blair's support. I do not believe that George Bush could win this year's election without it.Reuse content