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Dom Sandbrook © 2000


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On 1st February, in the little snow-bound state of New Hampshire, American voters will cast the first verdicts in the long electoral battle to determine who will occupy the Oval Office a year from now. As always, a tiny minority of the public -- those members of the New Hampshire electorate who can be bothered to trudge through the drifts to their polling stations -- will wield a disproportionately enormous influence on the future of the American presidency. Will the next President of the United States be, perhaps, Republican contender, talk-show host and conservative ideologue Alan Keyes? Perhaps the pint-sized but similarly rabid Gary Bauer will be a better bet? Will the millionaire publisher Steve Forbes surprise us all by emerging from his fog of ignorance to claim the crown, or will Senator Orrin Hatch cast off the mantle of obscurity and stride forward to the prow of the New World Order? Fortunately, all these eventualities are rather less likely than a Nobel laureate for David Beckham. Somewhat less fortunately, the alternatives are little better. Even before a frost-bitten New Hampshire hand has cast the first vote, the race for the nomination of the Republican and Democratic parties has narrowed to two men on either side, and the four likely lads are a sorry bunch indeed.

The Boring and the Bland

The incumbent Vice-President, Albert Gore Jr., offers little more than a warmed-over and watered-down Clinton agenda: in other words, an unambitious rendition of How to Get Elected. The consummate Washington insider, he is both one of the most earnest and one of the most dreadful political campaigners ever to hit a stump. Gore's credo is loyalty: to his party, obviously, not to any principles. He has claimed, with little apparent justification, to have been both the inspiration for the film Love Story and the inventor of the Internet. Aggressive, conservative and dull, he is fortunate only in his opponent, former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey. Senator Bradley's real claim to fame is that he once played basketball -- very well -- for the New York Knicks and, indeed, helped them win a national championship. A former Rhodes Scholar, he is running as a "thinker" and an "intellectual". This reputation is not undeserved. "Intellectual" campaigners in American politics have a long pedigree and Mr. Bradley fulfils all the criteria. First, he appears to be barely interested in winning and, even better, to be barely interested in anything at all. Second, he eschews the usual expected platitudes for his own brand of important-sounding vacuities that wow the political reporters and baffle his audiences. Third, he gives the appearance of falling asleep in debates, a time-honoured device, but one with the particular twist that he seems most in danger of disappearing for forty winks during his own speeches. Fourth, he has all the charisma of a log. Louis Menand rightly remarked in the New York Review that Mr. Bradley is in the liberal tradition of the likes of Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Paul Tsongas: indeed, he is boring, self-righteous, and insufferably ambitious. Choosing between Gore and Bradley is like having to select a pet from an under-stocked shop offering its customers either a nervous and irritable skunk or a sleepy-eyed and pompous old dog.

Pecksniff versus Heep

In contrast to the Forbes-Keyes-Hatch-Bauer show, a travelling circus of freaks and degenerates which would have wowed the punters in Dickensian England, the Republicans who actually stand a chance of being elected are a pair of rather dull contenders. George W. Bush, the son of one of the most vapid and uninteresting Presidents in recent memory (a singular achievement), is the Governor of Texas, the inventor of the label "compassionate conservatism" (but, as yet, of no definition of it) and the recipient of an enormous campaign fund donated by Wall Street's Republican lobby. The mere existence of this vast "war chest" has made him the favourite not only for the nomination but also for the Presidency itself. His major rival is Senator John McCain of Arizona, a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam, an apostle of Barry Goldwater's Western small-town conservatism, an unashamed militarist and probably the least unimpressive and irritating of all the Republican contenders, simply because the odd shaft of humanity can be occasionally discerned breaking through the clouds of conservative hyperbole. Senator McCain's greatest advantage, beyond the appeal of his unceasing demands for reform of the campaign finance laws, is that while his trademark in the recent debates has been the self-deprecating remark, Mr. Bush's has been the arrogant smirk of an anointed favourite. The contrast has something of the flavour of a clash between those two memorable literary hypocrites, Uriah Heep and Seth Pecksniff. The television pundits were not impressed by the Bush smirk, and most are hoping blindly for a McCain giant-killing feat in New Hampshire, but this is in truth an unlikely prospect.

At first glance, therefore, the American political circus appears to be little more than a carnival of fools and whores. Only the most rash of commentators would dare to predict an outcome. Nonetheless, a glance back at the past illuminates the potential factors in the race of 2000.

The Democrats and the South

Since the victory of John F. Kennedy in 1960, no non-Southern Democrat has won the Presidency. Presidents Johnson and Carter traded heavily on their Southern origins and Bill Clinton, in 1992, was sufficiently aware of the party's immense problems in the region to break the unwritten rule that a presidential ticket must be balanced between North and South by selecting a fellow Southerner -- Gore was Senator from Tennessee -- as his running mate. The performance of the Northern Democratic candidates in the South in 1968, 1972, 1984 and 1988 was utterly derisory and cost them the White House, and there is nothing to suggest that the hostility of lower-middle-class white southern voters to northern liberals has abated. In short, it is exceedingly unlikely that the soporific Mr. Bradley, an Oxford-educated New Jersey Senator, could succeed where Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis failed and carry the strategically vital Southern states. Were the present writer a Democratic political consultant, therefore, there is no question that he would swallow his (admittedly meagre) principles and urge the nomination of Mr Gore.

The God thing

Ever since the early 1970s political party affiliation in America has been a dwindling phenmenon and increasingly electoral candidates have turned to religious affiliation as means of building support. In 1976 Jimmy Carter shamelessly exploited his Baptist faith and his belief that he had been born again to rally millions of Southern Baptists who felt that their own brand of nauseating religiosity deserved a shot at the big time instead of all those nasty restrained Northern cults. In 1980 the hapless peanut farmer lost his constituency to Ronald Reagan, who had become the creature of the religious right through his support of the Christian Coalition and the crazed legions of the anti-abortion movement. The decline of the party as an instrument for mobilising popular electoral support means that the 2000 candidates have fallen back on religion as an expression of cultural solidarity with those segments of American society most likely to decide the election. So in the recent Republican debates, following the lead of Governor Bush, every single Republican candidate, when asked to name the political leader who had most inspired him, named one J. Christ. "He is my Lord and Saviour!" exclaimed Mr. Bush, no doubt mentally chalking up another million votes and another ten million dollars in donations. Vice President Gore, too, has got in on the act, divulging the awful truth that before making major decisions he demands of himself, "What would Jesus do?" To his credit, Bill Bradley is the only candidate who has refused to descend into the God arena with his fellows, although it is probable that it will cost him votes.

The Great Saxophonist takes on Son of Bush

Most Vice-Presidents never make it to the White House in their own right. Coincidentally, the model for a putative Gore success is Mr Bush's father, the original George B. Like Al Gore, George Bush, Sr. succeeded a president (Reagan) who had enjoyed two terms in office and great public popularity despite a major scandal half way through his second term (the Iran-Contra affair). The only similar situation in the recent past was in the 1960, when Vice-President Richard Nixon attempted, and failed, to succeed the immensely popular Dwight D. Eisenhower, the only other two-term President since Roosevelt. (Bill Clinton's personal political achievement is astonishing when one considers that, with all his handicaps, he is the only Democrat to have two full terms in office since the 1930s.) Is Mr. Gore, then, a Nixon or a Bush? The Bush key to victory in 1988 was to run the most negative campaign in history, painting his opponent as a coward, a weakling and a man with little patriotism and fewer feelings. Is Albert Gore capable of the same dastardly tactics? He does have a reputation as something of a pit-bull when in the ring, and if his advisors have the slightest shred of intelligence (which is dubious) they will know that merely to run on the "Clinton legacy" will not be enough to beat a new face. The Vice-Presidency may well be more of a handicap than a blessing in the long run, although it should carry enough institutional clout to see off the long-faced Bradley. The dilemma for Gore is that while Bill Clinton's lapdog is unlikely to win in November, Bill Clinton himself might well be able to do it. Does he distance himself from Mr. Clinton and the chubby romping in the White House? Or does he enlist the Great Saxophonist for a last battle against Son of Bush and risk not only being eclipsed by his political patron, but also finding himself encumbered with the enormous weight of Monica Lewinsky? Bearing in mind Gore's approach to decision-making, he is no doubt even now pondering the relationship between his friend Jesus and the occupant of Heaven's Oval Office. What would Jesus do?

Politics after Reagan, still

The truth is that American politics is still in post-Reagan territory. No major politician has yet dared to break the mould that he first perfected in 1980, of ultra-patriotism, religiosity, fiscal conservatism and the gospel of hard work and responsibility. The economic prosperity and contentment of the middle classes and the absence of any overwhelming social or cultural crisis means that there is no perceived need to deviate from the Reagan pattern. The end of the Clinton presidency, a long period of economic growth, political conservatism at home and shambolic blundering abroad, offers an opportunity to revise the political agenda, to coin new political phrases and abandon the trite vocabulary of 1980s conservatism and 1990s timidity to its slavish imitators gathered in the Dome on the other side of the Atlantic. It is a shame that none of the contenders in 2000 has had the guts to do so, but it is not altogether surprising. What this also means is that the excitement in 2000 is likely to come from unfamiliar quarters, from the shouting and fighting in the ridiculous Reform Party and its struggle between the forces of the ultra-rightist Patrick Buchanan and the extraordinarily coiffed entrepreneur Donald Trump. The ultimate confrontation, however, is likely to be between Albert Gore and George W. Bush, and it is likely to be an excellent remedy for insomnia.




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