What divides Americans is how to enjoy their wealth

'Dubya is the embodiment of the Big Brother generation: rich, cheerful, ignorant, tolerant and egocentric'
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The Independent Online

"Well, at least," I said to myself as I stomped schoolwards with my seven-year-old yesterday morning, Al Gore's premature concession still fresh in my ears, "if they're going to have capital punishment, they might as well elect someone who enjoys it." But by the time I got back Gore had de-conceded, and the Floridians were recounting. Furthermore, Gore was ahead in the popular ballot - by just a quarter of a million out of 97 million cast.

"Well, at least," I said to myself as I stomped schoolwards with my seven-year-old yesterday morning, Al Gore's premature concession still fresh in my ears, "if they're going to have capital punishment, they might as well elect someone who enjoys it." But by the time I got back Gore had de-conceded, and the Floridians were recounting. Furthermore, Gore was ahead in the popular ballot - by just a quarter of a million out of 97 million cast.

With an almost wonderful symmetry, 47 million had voted for the Vice-President and 47 million for the Governor, with two and a half million for the Green (Nader) and half a million for the right-wing loony (Buchanan). Thirty-seven thousand of Buchanan's votes had been cast in a Jewish area of Florida, leading to major doubts about a local voting machine; only in Israel do Jews vote for right-wing loonies. So the country was almost completely equally divided, and - as I write - the prospect of a resolution is at least a day away.

This lack of a result has so far prevented the creation of an instant myth of victory and defeat. Immediately after the Labour landslide of 1997, the size of the majority helped to establish an orthodoxy that Britain had voted overwhelmingly for radical change. Yet the fact was that fewer had voted Labour in 1997 than had supported John Major's derided government in 1992. Everyone (except Tony Blair) forgot this in the years following the election.

I recall, for instance, being told in October 1999 by some senior American journalists that Al Gore stood little chance of winning the presidency. He just didn't have the X factor, and besides, he was too close to the sexually-deranged Clinton. What he needed to do was to establish himself as his own man. But by last weekend, the conventional wisdom among the same group was that Gore might have forfeited the election by failing sufficiently to embrace the now beloved creator of America's longest economic boom. If only he'd unleashed Bill on the voters earlier...

After the Clinton question came the character issue. Here the orthodoxy held that the differences between Bush and Gore were so slight, that a bemused electorate had fallen back on choosing the guy who they liked most. Bush might be dim, unable to count, hardly able to talk, unclear about which multi-trillion dollar programmes were federal and which ones were state-provided, but he did seem a nice kinda guy. Whereas Gore was too clever, too arrogant, too "robotic". According to this slander, the American people preferred the guy who was as thick as they were. Truly the age of deference was dead.

But by yesterday midday, with the election being literally too close to call, a lot of this analysis seemed to be wide of the mark. There had been a bigger turn-out in the election, and real passions appeared to have been generated. And the margin was so small that it didn't even seem particularly relevant to "blame" the Nader supporters for potentially saddling the rest of the world with Dubya. There are Floridian Democrats who decided to go fishing on Tuesday, who may want not to come back.

Had I been entitled to vote in this election, I would have been tempted to vote for Ralph Nader myself. He is an opponent of capital punishment, a crusader for the environment and a man of huge integrity. And it may well have seemed that the best way to boost the issues around which Nader fought - such as campaign finance - would be to maximise the Nader vote, no matter what the consequences. Particularly as, according to Nader, there wouldn't be any consequences. Not real ones. Not with Bush and Gore so similar 'n' all. Well, Nader's proposition may now be put to the test.

And found wanting. I was intrigued to hear, on election night, the beginning of an analysis of recent American politics that ties these several orthodoxies together - and that explains them. We know that America - like Britain, but much more dramatically - has been experiencing an economic boom in the last few years. This follows on the Carter-Reagan-Bush years of huge budget deficits, inflation, high unemployment and middle-class angst.

Strangely (it seems at first), Bush has sought - and to some extent succeeded - in casting himself as the representative of this period of prosperity. And, equally strangely, Gore has presented himself as the slightly disgruntled and earnest man who wants to get in there and change things. Where Bush has reassured, Gore has lectured. Gore has presented himself as what he is - an activist. And Bush has presented himself for what he also is - a passivist.

Gore has sought to persuade Americans to use some of their prosperity to do things that needed doing. Bush asks nothing of anybody. His entire philosophy is to leave everyone alone. No one needs improving and - heck! - if there's a bit more cash rolling around then they can have it in a tax cut. It is a message that a lot of people like - here, as well as in the States; "We're doing fine, stop going on at us!" In 1952 this message took Dwight D Eisenhower to the White House.

It'll be as true in foreign policy as in domestic affairs. Gore would certainly have continued Clinton's policy of active intervention in world affairs; a policy that was decisive in Kosovo. But at the Republican convention, Bush's security advisor, Condoleeza Rice, told delegates to expect a scaling down. "America's armed forces are not a global police force," she declared, "They are not the world's 911." Instead, under Bush, vast sums will be doled out on trying to defend America from missile attack. Which is the equivalent of locking your own house and keeping a gun under the pillow.

This is, it seems to me, the true significance of the mysterious, absent Bush. We have been warned in several quarters not to under-estimate him, but the truth is that it is nearly impossible to estimate him at all - we simply have nothing to go on. The governorship of Texas, with its non-existent powers, is not responsible for all those statistics that prove what a rich, polluted, high-killing place it is. All that Bush has ever really done is own a baseball team. Consequently, he is unestimable.

But he's no Thatcher or Gingrich. The "enemy within" tendency has suffered with the decline of the Cold War. And Bush is too passive to be an ideological warrior. His compassionate conservatism is essentially a rejection of the right-wing moral agenda (eg anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-affirmative action, anti-immigrant, etc). In fact, what it means is: leave me alone and I'll leave you alone. I doubt that Dubya - like William Hague - has a racist or homophobic bone in his body. He is the embodiment of one side of the Big Brother generation: rich, cheerful, ignorant, tolerant and egocentric.

Put it that way, and it's quite good news that Gore got more votes than Bush, even if, by tomorrow night, Bush becomes president-elect. Because it shows that there are still plenty of folks around in the States who think that things could still be a whole lot better. Hopefully, that's true here as well.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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