A time of trepidation: America has voted for Bush, and the world must live with the consequences

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The Independent Online

A marathon campaign, a massive turnout and a long night of shifting fortunes have culminated in the result that many had feared. George Bush's victory comes as a bitter disappointment to those many Americans who had worked so hard for change and to the millions abroad who had desperately hoped to see a more progressive president in the White House.

A marathon campaign, a massive turnout and a long night of shifting fortunes have culminated in the result that many had feared. George Bush's victory comes as a bitter disappointment to those many Americans who had worked so hard for change and to the millions abroad who had desperately hoped to see a more progressive president in the White House.

On one score, there can be no complaints. There will be no recurrence of the disputes that so compromised the election four years ago. Mr Bush has won back the White House fair and square. All the lawyers can be stood down. His margin of victory, while narrow, was decisive. Not only has he obtained the necessary majority in the electoral college, he has the majority of the popular vote (which eluded him four years ago) and has emulated his father in winning an absolute majority.

As well as returning a Republican president, American voters have increased the Republican majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Mr Bush has achieved a clean sweep; this should make his task as chief executive less contentious than it would otherwise have been.

The size of the turnout - higher than in any election for three decades - enhances his mandate. Americans on both sides of the political divide were energised and engaged to the point where they queued for hours to cast their vote. This bodes well for the future of democracy, after a period in which apathy and cynicism had seemed to rule the politics of the Western world.

So the result may not be to our liking, but it is conclusive, and we will have to live with it. This does not mean, however, that we do not contemplate the second Bush term with considerable trepidation. Another four years of a president in thrall to the religious right and the neo-conservatives is another four years in which the United States risks sliding back into an earlier age of bigotry and social injustice.

Among Mr Bush's first tasks may well be to nominate a new member of the Supreme Court; and at least another two places may subsequently become vacant. The disgraceful way in which the Bush campaign exploited the abortion issue and anti-gay prejudices augurs ill for the nomination of any reform-minded justices. There is a real danger that a newly constituted court could set the tone for a far less fair and open-minded America.

Neither Mr Bush's record nor his campaign promises offer much hope of change in domestic or foreign priorities. The "war on terror" will continue to dictate US spending and perpetuate injustices such as Guantanamo. Unless Mr Bush's attitude towards the outside world changes, there will be little prospect of internationalising the war in Iraq. The US and Britain will have to continue bearing the brunt of the cost, and the ignominy, almost alone.

There are a few slim silver linings. The new Bush administration will have to confront at least some of the consequences of its own errors. The projected trillion-dollar budget deficit and the record trade gap may come back to haunt him. This could spare the Democrats the unpopularity that would proceed from the remedial measures they would undoubtedly have had to take. Their chances in four years' time may thus be improved.

Second-term presidents, freed from the pressures of seeking re-election, have a record of being less ideological, and looking to the bigger picture and their legacy. It is just conceivable that Mr Bush's convincing personal victory and his clear congressional majority may give him the courage to take necessary, but controversial, decisions. A president of the right, for instance, might face less opposition if he introduced something approaching universal health insurance than a president of the left. A conservative might also be in a stronger position than a liberal to put pressure on Israel or to argue for a significant UN role in Iraq. We can but hope. There are precious few other straws at which to clutch.

More realistically, perhaps, Mr Bush's victory could persuade the Europeans that they need to look to their own interests and act more cohesively, not just on economic and trade issues, but on foreign policy and defence. The big loser here, as in several other respects, would be Mr Blair. Once again, he would face a choice between Mr Bush's America and Europe. Unless Mr Bush has something tangible to offer Mr Blair in the way of a more multilateralist approach to the world, the political liability of being perceived as Mr Bush's junior partner will only increase.

The most immediate losers, however, are the near-half of the US electorate who supported the Democrats. This was not a rout - the result was too close for that. And John Kerry was not the ideal candidate. His presentational skills were ill suited to the television age and the post-11 September penchant of many Americans for simple verities. But it is a sad comment on the Kerry campaign and the mood of the US electorate that Mr Bush was not called to account for his grievous errors in office. It is not only America, but the rest of the world, that must now live with the consequences.

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