A reality check for the world: we must engage with Bush's America

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The Independent Online

Just to avoid confusion, let me say that I wanted John Kerry to win. But the reaction of so many Kerry supporters to George Bush's victory suggests that they may have difficulty in drawing useful lessons from it. The idea that the United States has entered a dark age, in the grip of irrational forces of Christian fundamentalism and big-oil capitalism, seems to be a way of avoiding reality rather than understanding it.

Just to avoid confusion, let me say that I wanted John Kerry to win. But the reaction of so many Kerry supporters to George Bush's victory suggests that they may have difficulty in drawing useful lessons from it. The idea that the United States has entered a dark age, in the grip of irrational forces of Christian fundamentalism and big-oil capitalism, seems to be a way of avoiding reality rather than understanding it.

Tony Blair said in an interview last week that "some people are in a state of denial" about the fact that President Bush is in the White House for another four years. As usual, he is right. What is more, there are fewer excuses for being in denial than there were four years ago. At least this time President Bush won more votes than his opponent did. Nor can anybody blame low turn-out. After decades of our sneering about the superiority of European democracy over American elections in which barely half of the electorate cast their vote, the turnout in the US, at just under 60 per cent, was higher than in the last British general election, at just over 59 per cent. As one of the Prime Minister's advisers put it to me, "The Democrats can't say, 'We was robbed.'" That ought to mean that both the Democrats in the US and their supporters over here are forced to try to understand why Bush was elected.

But no. The Daily Mirror's headline on Thursday was typical. "How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?" This arrogant observation was offered by a newspaper that usually accuses the Americans of arrogance. It might be called reality aversion syndrome, and it seems to start with the candidate himself. When Kerry slipped in the polls in April, according to Newsweek's post-election instant history, he railed: "I can't believe I'm losing to this idiot."

It is a comforting excuse, that the stupid working classes of retro America have been fooled into voting against their own economic interests by the cynical use of religious bigotry and by the fear of terrorism. But it is an excuse, not a way of dealing with the hard questions that democratic politicians have to answer in order to win. There is no point in pretending, though, that they are not hard questions. The most telling revelation in Newsweek is that former president Bill Clinton urged Kerry to support state bans on gay marriage. Kerry, we are told, "respectfully listened" and then told his staff: "I'm not going to ever do that." At which point we are no doubt supposed to come over all gooey with warm pride that our man, unlike Slick Willie Clinton, was prepared to make a stand on an issue of principle.

The right decision, in fact, would have been for Kerry to have betrayed the purity of his support for equal rights for gays and lesbians. If he had recognised the power of conservative social values and accommodated it - something that both Clinton and Blair are adept at doing - he might have won, and be in a better position now to promote equality for all kinds of people.

Bush's margin of victory was clear enough to dispose of all but the most outlandish conspiracy theories about the President stealing the election, but the contest was self-evidently winnable for Kerry. The outcome turned on 1.25 per cent of the vote in Ohio. And Ohio was one of 11 states that held referendums at the same time as the presidential election on whether to define marriage in state law as the union of a man and a woman. All the referendums were carried in favour of banning gay marriage, including in hippy Oregon (which voted Kerry) by 57 per cent, and in marginal Ohio by 62 per cent.

Instead of praising Kerry for his constancy of principle and his dignity in defeat, therefore, his supporters are entitled to be angry with him for the ineptitude of his strategy. He fell into the trap set for him by the Republicans, of being seen as on the wrong side of a symbolic issue. Gay marriage is mostly symbolic, not least in the sense that President Bush himself has endorsed civil unions for gay couples, as long as they are not called marriages.

The issue is similar to a symbolic gay rights issue in this country before the 1997 election. Blair, John Prescott and David Blunkett conspicuously abstained in a vote to lift the ban on gays in the military, while John Reid, a defence spokesman, voted to keep it. That was symbolic because the question was going to be decided, as it has been in favour of equality, by the courts enforcing European law.

Kerry also dug his own trap on Iraq, questioning Bush's honesty as opposed to his competence. Floating voters did not want to be told that their commander-in-chief is a liar.

None of this can or should be dismissed as Bush winning by an appeal to the evangelical right. That is a partly snobbish attempt to make middle American voters seem as if they come from another planet and therefore are not worth bothering about. It is a curious criticism to come from commentators in a country that sends so many of its children to state-funded church schools, but surely the point is that Clinton showed that it was possible to build a winning electoral coalition for broadly progressive values in the US.

The question for the future is who could run a Clinton-style campaign next time. I suspect that the answer, despite her obvious claims, is not Hillary. I hope this is not a sexist opinion: if it helps I think Condoleezza Rice would beat her in 2008. I fear Hillary's appeal is largely confined to the core Democratic vote.

The question for the present, though, is, as Blair put it last week, do we simply dismiss the whole of America as a land of "liars, war- mongers and idiots" or do we "start to get a sensible debate about why people in America feel as they do"? The first course is negative, fatalist and easy. The second is hopeful, constructive and difficult.

Blair is surely right that little can be achieved in the world except in alliance with the US, and that requires an engagement not only with the Bush administration but also with US public opinion. The Prime Minister ran through a list of issues last week, starting with climate change. He accepted that it may not be possible to find common ground on this, but unless US voters can be persuaded, then the world's largest carbon dioxide-producing nation cannot be restrained. Much the same is true of Israel-Palestine. And it is at least true that Bush - unlike Clinton - is committed to the two-state solution.

When Tony Blair, then a 39-year-old opposition spokesman, travelled to Washington to learn the lessons of Clinton's 1992 campaign, he was told one thing that has stayed with him ever since. What the Democratic Party needed when Clinton ran for the presidency was "reality therapy". That is what the Democrats still need, and it is what the rest of us need too, if we want to engage with American power over the next four years.

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