Dole vs Clinton: the circus comes to town

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The Independent Online
Despite three years buffeted by scandal, real or imagined, scarred by personal invective and tarnished by under-achievement, Bill Clinton seems the man most likely to win this year's US presidential campaign. (Yes, the circus is here again: it starts in earnest with the Iowa caucuses on 12 February.)

The sour, septuagenarian Senator Robert Dole is overwhelming favourite to become President Clinton's challenger in the autumn. Both Dole and Clinton are fearsome campaigners, but are also notorious for their ability to put one foot in their mouth while shooting themselves in the other. A Dole-Clinton campaign could resemble a self-demolition derby, with Clinton the favourite to collapse across the line first.

But do not place large bets on this campaign. US political forecasting is more than usually foolish at present. The American electorate, once tolerably predictable, has experienced a kind of Gadarene giddiness in the past four years. On the first day of 1992, President George Bush, the victor of the Gulf, looked unassailable. Eleven months later, he was defeated by the young Arkansas governor. This was portrayed as the birth of a new Democratic Party and a return to government activism.

One year and one month ago, President Clinton was humbled by Newt Gingrich's sweeping victory in the congressional mid-term elections. This was hailed as the dawning of a new era of Republican anti-government activism. Thirteen months later, Gingrich is one of the most hated men in American politics (a 29 per cent approval rating); the Democratic Party wallows, at almost every political level, in leaderless and idea-free disarray.

Clinton's and Gingrich's troubles have been partly of their own making. Both men are products of the electronic age in American politics - self- promoters rather than achievers. But it is also true that both have been savaged by the electorate for attempting to push through the policies that they were elected to enact: Clinton on health care, Gingrich on balancing the US budget. Both have become victims - as well as exponents - of the era of the perpetual political campaign: of vituperative chat shows; of concerted special-interest intimidation; and barrages of negative advertisements full of expertly crafted misrepresentation.

At present, the government of the most powerful nation is "shut down" (because of the budget deficit dispute between Clinton and Gingrich). But this is just an absurd symptom of a wider deadlock. In modern US politics, the weapons for halting government, for preventing anything being agreed, have become more powerful than the official 200-year-old machinery to promote compromise and decision. The US electorate, intermittently following the plot, hurtles from a touching belief in some fresh saviour to a renewed conviction that all politicians are rascals.

Clinton or Dole? Government activism or anti-government activism? Both men are anti-ideological fixers and muddlers, who love the business of politics for its own sake. It is difficult to believe that the US will gain the new hope or direction it craves from either man.