Why Americans would rather have a rookie than a bore for president

Mr Bush may be less diligent in his studies than Mr Gore, but he is neither stupid nor slow'

Share

First it was just ripples that lapped these American shores: gentle transatlantic enquiries about the likelihood, doubtless remote, of George W Bush becoming the next US president. Now, with all the set pieces of the campaign over - the primaries, the conventions and the debates - those ripples have become a positive tidal wave of Anglo-American incomprehension. How can it be, you ask, that someone so patently ignorant, inarticulate and unqualified is even in with a chance?

First it was just ripples that lapped these American shores: gentle transatlantic enquiries about the likelihood, doubtless remote, of George W Bush becoming the next US president. Now, with all the set pieces of the campaign over - the primaries, the conventions and the debates - those ripples have become a positive tidal wave of Anglo-American incomprehension. How can it be, you ask, that someone so patently ignorant, inarticulate and unqualified is even in with a chance?

Well, more than a chance, actually. Mr Bush has now edged ahead of Al Gore in all major polls. States that seemed safely committed to the Vice-President just a couple of weeks ago are now in contention. And while nothing can be assumed in so close a campaign, the one-and-a-half term Governor of Texas is more than holding his own against one of the most experienced and qualified politicians in America. He could be elected.

To anyone who watched, and scored, the presidential debates as a contest of policy and substance, such a prospect is doubtless incredible. So it must be also to anyone whose only impression of Mr Bush comes from the abundance of mispronunciations, malapropisms, and outright mistakes that have drawn so much scorn. But America is not electing a champion debater, nor yet a quiz master - it has plenty of other awards for such people. It is electing a president, and other criteria apply.

True, Mr Bush mangles his words, seems vague on geography and can appear "fuzzy" - to use his word - on the maths. And there were times in the three televised debates, especially the last, where he seemed at times erased from the picture by the dominant Mr Gore. But he has two signal qualities that Americans value and that his opponent just as signally lacks: charm and consistency.

In their direct encounters, Mr Bush habitually parried his opponent's attacks with self-deprecating humour - which also helped disguise the fact that he was deflecting the question. When a female questioner searched in vain for her glasses, Mr Bush offered her his with a smile. He sums up and connects with his audiences in a way that eludes Mr Gore.

Mr Bush may sometimes appear trained - and his delivery and command of policy (give or take a few lapses) have improved immeasurably over the months - but Mr Gore gives the impression of acting, often over-acting, his part. The only time he has approached the natural directness of Bush was in the month after the party convention in August, but he lost the knack before the first debate.

Where Mr Gore seems even now in perpetual search of his style, down to suits and hairstyle, Mr Bush has stuck to his uniform of dark suit and tie from the start - with casuals reserved for his ranch at weekends. And while Mr Bush has adjusted his message and catchphrases, much of the content is the same as it was in his stump speech more than a year ago: across the board tax cuts, limited privatisation of the pension system, and monitoring of school standards. Nor is Mr Gore's extensive experience of high office quite the trump card it may seem. Americans are more open than most Europeans to giving the "rookie" a chance; but they also know that those who went to the White House with least experience left office as some of the most distinguished.

A minority of American voters may still believe that Mr Bush is "too dumb" to be president. But the campaign has shown something different: his command of detail may lag far behind Mr Gore's, but his ability to generalise and cut through to principle is perhaps sharper than the Vice-President's - as is his wit. Mr Bush may be less diligent in his studies, but he is neither stupid nor slow.

Among his broad principles, Mr Bush also carries several that have appeal in America across party lines. His contempt for "Washington", his dismissal of "big government" and his argument that the projected budget surplus is proof that individuals pay too much tax are all staples of Middle America - and the more that Mr Gore moves towards to the political left, the more that Mr Bush can play them to his advantage.

Of the very many voters who share such views, only some will either notice or care about Mr Bush's mispronunciations or vagueness about "abroad". To many they are already just foibles, even endearing foibles, which do not obscure the fact that - in their view - the Governor's heart is in the right place. And while some of these same people believe that presidents should be strong and dominant, as Mr Gore was during two of the three debates, a good many believe that presidents, like other people, should not only work hard but play by the rules. They found Mr Gore's manner uncivil and aggressive and questioned how well such manners equipped him for dealing either with Congress or with foreign leaders. To them, Mr Bush's claim to be a "uniter not a divider" is a welcome alternative.

It has frequently been said during the campaign that Mr Bush and Mr Gore offer two sides of Bill Clinton: Mr Bush has much of the charm and political sensitivity, while Mr Gore has the command of the issues, and that the voters have to make up their mind which they want. One reason why the race is so close, and why so many people have yet to make up their mind, may be precisely because they really want both.

For me, if I had a vote, the choice would be clear. George Bush disqualifies himself on policies alone. He predicates too much on the booming economy and the most optimistic budget forecasts. His tax cuts give most to those who need it least; he plans to reduce the iniquitous price of prescription medicine by subsidising the already well-padded pharmaceutical companies. And he opposes abortion rights.

But there is much about Bush that is preferable, including his relaxed and cheerful demeanour. He seems more spontaneous, less encumbered and better grounded than Gore, despite the occasional flicker of the privileged "fraternity" boy. For American voters who are contemptuous of "Washington" and believe that government - of any complexion - does more harm than good and dislike Mr Gore, Mr Bush is their man. How big this coalition is will decide the result.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform