Godfrey Hodgson: The call of a second Reagan

With his country-club values, George W Bush promises it can be 'morning in America' again. It does not bode well for the rest of us
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The Independent Online

Gore or Bush? Bore or Gush? What difference does it make? All year the presidential election has looked desperately close. Now there are signs that a current is bearing George W Bush's boat home to port, notwithstanding revelations about a drunk-driving charge in the 1970s that are not likely to sway many voters. Probably this dooms Al Gore to not wholly unexpected, or indeed wholly undeserved, disappointment. We will see on Tuesday. But does it matter?

Gore or Bush? Bore or Gush? What difference does it make? All year the presidential election has looked desperately close. Now there are signs that a current is bearing George W Bush's boat home to port, notwithstanding revelations about a drunk-driving charge in the 1970s that are not likely to sway many voters. Probably this dooms Al Gore to not wholly unexpected, or indeed wholly undeserved, disappointment. We will see on Tuesday. But does it matter?

The answer is that it matters a great deal, for the United States, for the world, and even for us in Britain.

For one thing, even if the candidates do not seem very sharply distinguished, the parties are far more ideologically defined than they used to be, and far more class-based. To explain why some Americans were Republicans and others Democrats once involved long explorations of slavery and emancipation, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Now America, like Britain, has two major parties broadly based on ideology and class. Now all Republicans are conservatives, and most liberals are Democrats. The Democrats more or less consistently favour the have-nots. The Republicans, consistently, favour the haves.

Although George "Dubya" Bush, like his father, is a New England aristocrat posing as a West Texas wildcatter, a win for him on Tuesday would not be very different from a Conservative win in Britain, a win for the propertied and business classes. It will mean favours for the business interests that have showered him with money. And it will mean lower taxes, especially - as Bush admits - for the wealthiest.

Bush wants to revive the tax cuts, and rampant inequality, of the Reagan era. From 1977 to 1985, with the biggest shift coming in the Reagan years, the richest 1 per cent of American families averaged more than $97,000 in tax breaks per family per year, while the bottom 80 per cent paid about $200 a year more in taxes. More of that is what Bush and his Republican friends mean by compassionate conservatism.

Inequalities of income, tax and wealth have been modestly reduced during the Clinton years, and Al Gore would try to reduce inequality further. Beyond that, however, the implications of a Gore victory are harder to read. The new Democrats, like New Labour, have sought to appeal to the plain folks while at the same time reassuring the middle class and rewarding corporate business and the new rich. As a candidate, Gore has wiggled between the conservative policies demanded by the corporate backers who gave him the biggest electoral war chest in American history, and the "ordinary people" whose needs, such as affordable medical insurance and education, he has evoked in every speech, sometimes movingly, more often unconvincingly.

If Bush wins, it will be because he has something of Ronald Reagan's gift for allowing Americans to feel that it's "morning in America". And for the half of the electorate that votes - the richer half - the times are indeed good.

If Gore wins in spite of everything, it will not be so much because he has persuaded people that he and his party are responsible for the internet boom, but because a substantial proportion of American women don't trust laddish Dubya. One vital issue at stake is abortion. The new president will have the power to appoint a "pro-life" majority to the Supreme Court, and Bush owes that to the Christian right.

Not only the White House, but also control of Congress is at stake next Tuesday. If Bush wins, the odds are that the Republicans will hang on to their majorities in both Senate and House, but the margins are desperately close. Where Clinton faced a Republican majority in both houses, Bush just could face a Democratic majority, and so more prolonged legislative stalemate.

Even more baroque scenarios are being canvassed. Because presidents are elected, not by a popular majority, but by an electoral college in which a state's whole vote goes to the narrowest of winners, it is theoretically possible for one candidate to win the popular vote, and for the other to be elected by the college.

What seems more likely is that Bush will win, perhaps by a larger margin than the polls have hitherto suggested. The consequences for the world are not reassuring.

At a time when the United States is relatively more powerful than ever before, when CNN and MTV are seen as cultural icons, when the almighty dollar can sink the yen and the euro, and American diplomacy is the arbiter of the world, the US would be run by a president who could hardly care less. In this at least, George W Bush is very different from his patrician and internationalist father. He is perfectly in tune with that side of the national mood that is complacent, verging on triumphalist.

Bush is reluctant to commit American troops overseas, and keen to push ahead with a missile defence system that would protect Americans but not their allies. He knows little of the world, and he seems not very interested in learning more, though it is fair to say that he will have wise and experienced foreign policy advisers.

For the time being, many Americans like this "Who needs 'em?" neo-isolationism, though high oil prices, serious mayhem in the Middle East, or problems in financing a renewed deficit could make them change their minds. For the rest of a hungry, angry world, there is little to look forward to in the country-club values of a Sunbelt politician whose interest in the news scarcely reaches beyond pro football and stock portfolios.

For Europe, there would perhaps be no great difference between a Gore and a Bush administration. Both would be in the hands of officials who seriously exaggerate the decrepitude of European economies and underestimate the costs of aggressive trade tactics. Both would despise international organisations, both are more interested in Israel than in any other 30 countries put together, both want the pleasures of international hegemony with as little as possible of its pains and prices.

For Britain, a Gore administration would be more or less business as usual. Al Gore may not attach much importance to the dream, shared by some in New Labour and the Clinton entourage, of converting the world to the Third Way, whatever that may be. But he would have no reason to depart from it abruptly.

Dubya, on the other hand, simply won't know what they are talking about. He is not a reactionary, except perhaps in his attachment to the death penalty. But he has shown no sign of understanding, or even attempting to understand, the profound difference between his brand of "compassionate conservatism" and New Labour's attempts to square the wealth-creating power of corporate business with its social consequences. With Bush in the White House, the "special relationship" between London and Washington would go back to what it was before Clinton and Blair: an asymmetrical relationship, dangerously important to British politicians and mildly embarrassing to their American counterparts.

Either man, as president, would be responsive - Gore with anguished hand-wringing, Bush with jaunty high fives - to the interests of an American business class now indifferent to the less well-off half of its own fellow citizens, let alone to the rest of the world. It has long been a bad joke that America has two conservative parties.

But after this year's uninspiring campaign, we should make no mistake. If America wants to go back to the era of Ronald Reagan, as it appears it does, George W Bush has far better credentials than Al Gore to be his heir. All we can hope is that he exceeds expectations as much as Reagan did.

 

Godfrey Hodgson has published several books on American politics, the latest being a biography of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

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