By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 09/11/06):
The ugly American mark two is dead. Overnight six years of glib European identification of “American” with rightwing fantasism is over. The gun-toting, pre-Darwinian Bushite, the tomahawk-wielding, Halliburton-loving, Beltway neocon calling abortion murder and torturing Arabs as “Islamofascists” has been laid to rest, and by a decision of the American people. Another McCarthy raised its head over the western horizon and has been slapped down. It is a good day for level-headed Americans.
Yesterday’s result could hardly have been more emphatic. George Bush’s election wizard, Karl Rove, said he would make America’s midterm elections “a choice, not a referendum”. The electorate declined. Certainly the spectacle was not always pleasant. These regular fiestas of participatory democracy make the European visitor’s hair stand on end. They are politics as blood sport, all-in wrestling with no quarter given, Eatanswill on speed. The welter of dirty tricks, midnight robocalls, push polls and face-to-face confrontation contrasts with Europe’s “new politics”, a feelgood quest for the centrist voter.
I have watched many American elections, but still find myself shocked by candidates accusing each other in public and on television of corruption, homosexuality, lying, surrendering to terror, killing babies, favouring torture, associating with hoodlums and consorting with prostitutes. My favourites this time were “Brad Miller pays for sex but not for body armour for our troops” and, most savage of all, “Michael Steele loves George Bush”. Achieving office in Britain is a stroll in the country. In America the participant must carry the one true ring to the land of Mordor. The game goes only to the strong.
I find this healthy. The electioneering technique pioneered by Rove eschews consensus. It splits electors into slivers of opinion, profiling them by what they watch on television, where they play golf, what car they drive, what they buy and where they pray. It then directs specific messages and canvassers to win their vote. The strategy has proved successful in the Bush cause in the past. It separates the person from the mass and responds to his or her fears and needs.
As such it purges politics of the accumulated sludge of power. The huge amount of negative advertising is distasteful, but demands that candidates defend themselves on their weaknesses as well as their strengths. An elderly man in the street, a declared Republican, smiled at the camera, shrugged and said simply: “My president lied to me.” No wound is left unopened. The scrutineer of American politics is not the voter but the opponent. And internet fundraising has made resources available to any plausible candidate, not just the rich. As for this being the “dirtiest campaign ever”, there have been plenty worse. Lyndon Johnson accused his opponent, Barry Goldwater, of wanting to blow up little girls with mushroom clouds.
So what now? Democrats campaigned against Bush and won a mandate to use their congressional power to curb his remaining two years in office. They took the House of Representatives by a safe lead and appear to have deprived the Republicans of a Senate majority. The argument, put forward in this week’s Economist, that American government is better constrained when Congress is at odds with the presidency than when they are at one is about to be put the test.
The new congressional majority wishes to press ahead with a higher minimum wage, an end to pork-barrel budgets, an immigrant amnesty, energy conservation, stem cell research and reform to the spiralling drugs bill and welfare generally. Most of these measures may fall by the wayside, but they have behind them the winds of mandate.
A bigger challenge is to reverse the drain of power away from Congress and the courts to the executive under Bush. As the impeccably conservative Grover Norquist said in June: “If you interpret the constitution’s saying that the president is commander in chief to mean that the president can do anything he wants and can ignore the laws, you don’t have a constitution: you have a king.”
Such usurping of power is not confined to the so-called war on terror, used by Bush to justify any and every illiberal act. Congress must find a way of curbing federal spending, which has risen under Bush faster than under any president since Johnson. Otherwise a Democratic president in 2008 will endure agonies of retrenchment. Whether Bush will cooperate with such reform in the hope of rescuing his floundering presidency is up to him. The first sign of compromise is the departure of his defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld – announced by a chastened Bush at his press conference yesterday – who has been facing a near-mutinous revolt of his generals against the Iraq war. However, the only Republican of any stature, Senator John McCain, is disinclined to come to Bush’s aid.
American politics is suddenly open and interesting. California’s Nancy Pelosi is poised to become the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives and thus third in line to the White House. She has already promised to cooperate with a shattered Republican party to salvage something from Bush’s remaining administration. Round her is an array of plausible Democrats with their eye on 2008: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, a reborn Al Gore and a reputed “10% of the Senate” claim to be considering the presidential nomination.
They all have one item of unfinished business. A CNN exit poll of swing issues suggested Iraq, terrorism, the economy and corruption were of equal concern to voters, with the Republicans scoring badly on them all. The politics of fear has lost all its post-9/11 traction. Republicans mouthing dire threats of “Islamicists” under every bed are simply scorned. The most ferocious television ad I saw had a voice incanting that Americans were less popular, terrorism was worse, people were less safe, gasoline was more expensive, soldiers were dying and Osama bin Laden was still free – all because of the Iraq war.
Over 60% of electors want US troops withdrawn from Iraq now or soon. Reports from Baghdad indicate expectation and relief that American policy in that country is about to change. The US army wants to leave. The government ran on a pro-war ticket and suffered a resounding rebuff. At this point the insurgency knows it has won, however long it takes the occupying power to go. Retreat in good order is the best hope. An era of ill-conceived, belligerent interventionism has come to an end – by democratic decision, thank goodness.