Leading Article: The American century ends with a whimper

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The US presidential campaign has finally generated a little excitement. The weekend polls suggest that the contest, for so long a foregone conclusion, is tightening. This was predictable. Poll numbers often narrow in the dying days of a presidential race. Talk of a Clinton landslide may have been premature but it is unlikely that the floating voters will float fast enough, or far enough, to rescue Bob Dole. The Republican challenger remains irretrievably behind in six out of the 10 largest states, from New York to California. He is ahead in only two. The probability is that Bill Clinton will triumph tomorrow and become the first Democrat to win back-to-back presidential elections since Franklin Roosevelt.

It is extraordinary that a man so detested by the right and the left, with such high negative ratings, and with such an unconvincing record in office, should become the most successful Democratic politician for half a century. Look again, and it is not so extraordinary. Only half the potential electorate - maybe, for the first time, less than half - will vote tomorrow. To win the greatest democratic office on earth in the late 20th century, you need to persuade one quarter of the American electorate to vote for you. As Abraham Lincoln might have said, you can't fool all of the people all of the time but one in four will do nicely.

Given the generally positive performance of the economy in the Clinton years - steady growth, low inflation, falling budget deficits - there was always a better than even chance that the President would achieve this woefully low electoral target. A more charismatic and wily opponent might have exacted a higher price for his early stumbles and for his dubious (if no more) political and financial manoeuvres in both Washington and Arkansas. But Bill Clinton is a lucky politician and like all lucky politicians (Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher) he has been especially lucky in his opponents.

Bob Dole is a good and decent man. For many years, he stood out as a voice of managerial common sense in a Republican party increasingly prey to right-wing ideological fads and divisive social and ethnic hatreds. As a presidential candidate, he has been a dud. Even in the final days of the campaign, pollsters report that his support has a habit of falling when he visits a state. It is not supposed to happen that way.

Bob Dole has been running for president, formally speaking, for 18 months; in reality, most of his adult life. He has failed to explain what he would do in the office, other than occupy it with his usual lugubrious wisdom. This was never likely to be enough. Question: if US politics is as predigested, plastic and televisually scripted as everyone says it, how did the Republicans manage to nominate Bob Dole? The answer is that conservatism, which has dominated Republicanism for the last 20 years, is a spent force, or, at least, unable to throw up a convincing champion to replace Reagan.

That brings us to the other unwitting ally of Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and his utterly deflated anti-government revolution. Gingrich's sweeping congressional victory two years ago was the President's lowest ebb; but also a godsend. Up to that point Bill Clinton had shown little sign of knowing how to govern, but he has always known how to campaign. The arrogance and hyperbolism of Gingrich and his pals gave Clinton a platform from which to campaign against Republican extremism.

But where does that leave the United States? Gingrich sweeps to congressional power by campaigning against Clintonism; two years later Clinton is resurrected by campaigning against Gingrichism. In 1992 Clinton was elected after promising to invent a kind of "lite" government, capable of delivering services (especially education, training and health care) without raising taxes. Two years later, Gingrichism swept to power, promising to dismantle government as usual and to release the genius of the American people. After closing down government for a short while, Gingrichism is rejected and the US turns (in all probability) to a kind of Clintonism Super Lite, which promises to build a "bridge to the 21st century", without revealing much of where the piers of the bridge would stand.

It is a pretty depressing picture. For a man of such obvious energy and intelligence, the Clinton record of the last four years offers little enough to hope for in the next four. He deserves some credit for cutting the US federal budget deficit and for pushing through the Gatt and Nafta trade deals. Otherwise, his domestic policy has amounted to little and his foreign policy has been a kind of global Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy, allowing crises to develop, resolving them with bursts of sometimes inspired energy, then demanding the credit.

Four years on, there is no Clinton Doctrine; no clearer picture of how the US can be relied upon to respond to a post-Soviet world.

The best that can be said is that Clinton has been a muddled president for a muddled age. Better that, perhaps, than the various models of Republican or Democratic protectionism and isolationism that might have been on offer. Better that than the moral absolutism and racial divisiveness of the Republican right.

The best that can be hoped from a Clinton Two - if such it is to be - is a clearer and steadier foreign policy and some incremental advances on domestic problems, from health care to education (if the Congress permits).

The worst that can be feared is a rerun of Nixon's second term, mired from the beginning in debilitating self-defence against allegations of sleaze. Either way, it is difficult to imagine an inspiring close to the American century.