Gary Hart: The restoration of a mythical golden age

The great-grandchildren of those grumpy old men see the chance to restore America to the 1920s
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The Independent Online

Today's inauguration of George Bush will be all about his vision for uniting America. Three radical forces will colour the second term.The first is represented by those concerned to dismantle America's social security system, the cornerstone of the Rooseveltian New Deal and the heart of the United States' social safety net. The second by those attempting to remake the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court, the fulcrum for institutionalising the cultural agenda of the religious right. The third is represented by those seeking to salvage the neo-conservative project to bring democracy to the Arab world at the point of a bayonet.

Each of these forces represents a set of core values different from those accepted by moderate, mainstream Americans for most of the 20th century, indeed for most of America's history. Together, they set the United States on a domestic and international course unrecognisable to a majority of Americans, including many who voted for George Bush, and to much of the world.

Privatisation of the social security system is a tribute to human persistence. For decades, it was possible to find cartoons in the New Yorker magazine and elsewhere of grumpy old men in deep leather chairs in private clubs damning Franklin D Roosevelt for anything that went wrong in the world. It was amusing, at least until one began to realise, in the age of Reagan (and Thatcher), that those grumpy old men had progeny, and those progeny had progeny that were still damning Roosevelt for insinuating socialism into America's capitalist fabric. Entitlement programmes, including basic public retirement plans, sapped the entrepreneurial spirit and made people wards of the state. This put us on the path to ruinand would eventually, by god, lead to communism.

The great-grandchildren of those grumpy old men now see the chance to restore America to the 1920s when any rising tide would lift the gilded yachts of inherited wealth and to hell with the leaky skiffs of the working stiffs. Privatisation of the social security system will signal the end of any kind of entitlement, so they hope, and restore us to the good old hairy-chested days of every man for himself and devil take the hindmost.

Likewise, as with good help, dependable judges have been hard to find. Now they will be recruited from the ranks of those certified pure by the religious right and guaranteed not to make the law but to interpret the law. This becomes especially appealing when the laws are being made by congressional leaders who have also been certified pure by the same religious right. Never mind that, when the laws are once again made by mainstream legislators, as they eventually will be following a failed effort to return to the 19th century or perhaps even the 14th, those same judges will be called upon to uphold laws they find abhorrent, loathsome, and even immoral. In the meantime, look for repeal of individual choice on abortion, the introduction of prayer in schools, censorship of the theory of evolution, and the sanctification of the death penalty wholesale.

Then there is Iraq. The long-term aim of the Project for the New American Century, launched in the mid 1990s by neo-conservatives now occupying the senior foreign and defence policy positions in the Bush administration, was to overthrow Saddam Hussein and use Iraq as America's political and military base to remake the greater Middle East. It has not worked out as planned and promised. This will be the test of whether President Bush is a man of conviction even when wrong or a pragmatist who knows how to cut his losses.

If election-day havoc is kept to casualties in the hundreds and not the thousands, there will be a temptation to accept the newly-elected Iraqi government's offer to have American troops depart and leave Iraq's future to the (mostly) democratically-elected Iraqi government. This would be the logical bet, but it would not be a safe one. Iraq has become George Bush's white whale. He seems comfortable with obsession and has defined his manhood by "staying the course", even when the course proves both wrong and wrong-headed. It is a waste of time to speculate about his exit strategy in Iraq simply because he does not have one.

In the meantime, the greatest army in the world is being steadily wasted and depleted.And the National Guard and reserve forcesare also suffering serious attrition in manpower and recruitment. While we are stimulating terrorist recruitment in Iraq, the home guard, dedicated by our constitution to securing the homeland, are not being trained and equipped for this mission. America will be attacked again, possibly in George Bush's second administration. We are not prepared.

Beyond these three major missions lies a lengthy agenda, one less of reform than of restoration. The restoration desired by the core of President Bush's support is, in part, one of an earlier time and, in part, one of a time that never was. At home, the earlier time, at least for those in the middle and at the bottom of the ladder, was not so great as the Bush stalwarts wish to remember. Abroad, the evocation of Woodrow Wilson as the standard-bearer for the export of democracy neglects the important distinction that Wilson believed this to be a mission for the entire democratic world, not just America, and one carried out peacefully, not through the use of force.

Despite all this, people of goodwill must wish George Bush well and hope that his hubris will be tempered by reality.

Gary Hart is a former US senator who twice ran for the Democratic nomination for President