Seldom has a US presidential election produced so little clash of ideology or even of policy. But the outcome could make a big difference to the rest of the worldby Martin Walker / March 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
There is a distinctly unsettling chance that the next American president will have to deal with a Wall Street crash, a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, or the instantly perilous crisis for the whole Pacific region of a Taiwanese declaration of independence. He may even face all three simultaneously. He will almost certainly have to contend with a more assertive Russia; with a new Balkan crisis, as a querulous Congress bickers over extending the stay of the American troops; and with a creeping estrangement within the Atlantic alliance as the EU continues to resist American food exports which contain hormones or GMOs (genetically modified organisms). None of these prospects has yet emerged as a serious topic for debate in the US election. The farm state of Iowa, whose introspective caucuses now open the race, has seen far more discussion of the arcane matter of ethanol subsidy for farmers than GMOs. This is odd, because consumer resistance to GMOs in the US is growing to the point where the Heinz group has just announced that its baby foods would in future be GMO-free. Even the crisis in world trade talks after Seattle, with its ominous implications for US-EU relations, failed to ignite serious argument among the candidates. Russia’s assault on Chechnya has caught their attention, but President Clinton (and thus Vice-President Gore), Governor George W Bush of Texas, Senator John McCain of Arizona and ex-Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey have all taken the same line: vague threats to block western aid and credits. Indeed, it is much easier to list the areas where the four most prominent candidates agree, rather than those where they differ. Republicans and Democrats alike are all free traders who back Nafta and, at least in principle, back the role of the World Trade Organisation. (The US’s most prominent protectionist, the former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, has almost dropped from the public eye.) Not one of the four main candidates wants to raise taxes, or to change current monetary policies. All worship at the shrine of Alan Greenspan, recently re-appointed to a fourth term at the Federal Reserve Board. Senator McCain has even quipped that should Greenspan die, he would have him frozen and stuffed and keep the corpse in place to reassure the markets. None seeks to abolish the death penalty, or to tackle the penal system-thanks to which 2 per cent of the male work force are now in prison (which helps to explain the low unemployment statistics). Not one of them wants to change the current abortion law, although, under pressure from the conservative right, Governor Bush has said that he staunchly opposes it. But he would not make opposition to abortion the litmus test for his nominations to a future Supreme Court. (Four of the nine Justices are expected to retire in the next four years, so the prospect of nominating a liberal or a conservative Court may be one of the most important legacies of the next president.) Issues which usually set Republicans and Democrats at odds have become curiously blurred. Neither Gore nor Bradley seeks to reverse President Clinton’s decision, in 1996, to approve the bill passed by the Republican Congress to “end welfare as we know it” by surrendering back to the states what had been a federal prerogative since Franklin Roosevelt’s aid to families with dependent children, 63 years ago. The result, apart from the modest decline in the welfare bill, has been that, whereas barely half of single mothers with children below the age of three were in the workforce when Clinton took office, two-thirds of them are working today. Although this is possibly a good thing for the economy, the long-term social impact of this change has yet to be assessed. On the Republican side, Senator McCain is talking like a Democrat when he insists on deploying the budget surplus to “save” social security, and when he too calls for a national health system. “Too many Americans go to sleep at night desperately fearing illness or injury to themselves or a family member because they are without health insurance to pay the bills,” he declared in the first Republican debate in New Hampshire, where he went on to win the primary so handsomely. But then Governor Bush also spoke like a Democrat in his big social policy speech in Indianapolis last July, when he insisted that “the purpose of prosperity is to leave no one out, to leave no one behind.” This was an echo of Bill Clinton’s stump speech in the 1992 campaign, and it points to the degree to which Republicans and Democrats are now sharing clich?s. The Republican front-runner even flirted with heresy when he went on to question whether the magic of the free market was sufficient: “The invisible hand works many miracles, but cannot touch the human heart.” This was the speech which spelled out his commitment to a new “compassionate conservatism.” No doubt he was reinforcing his father’s pledge of “a kinder, gentler” way to perpetuate the Reagan revolution. Bush the Younger has gone further, proposing a much more prominent role for the federal government in education, traditionally a matter for local school boards, whose independence from Washington has hitherto been stoutly defended by Republicans. Bush simply waves aside questions asking whether he would renew Reagan’s (unfulfilled) pledge to abolish the department of education and evict its secretary from a seat in the cabinet. This is not simply a matter of election rhetoric. Back home in Texas, he outraged some of his most generous financial supporters when he concocted a way to keep a local consumers’ advocate, Judy Walsh, as one of the commissioners regulating the state’s power, gas, water and telephone industries. Issues which should have defined the differences between candidates have been strangely muted. Consider the case of the dog which failed to bark: the deeply-held environmental beliefs of Gore. Gore’s bestselling Earth in the Balance, published in 1992, was a passionate warning against the threat of global warming which made him a hero to many younger Democrats. At the time, this call for the environment to become “the central organising issue for the post-cold war world” was clearly the cause by which Gore wanted to be judged as a public figure. We have heard little of it this election season. Even when the polls, late last year, suggested that he was in the fight of his life to keep the Democratic nomination from Bill Bradley, Gore studiously avoided a theme which could have ignited real support among core Democratic voters, including the students who form a sizeable proportion (up to 15 per cent) of the electors in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, whose 28 years experience make him a potent figure on the foreign relations committee, has an explanation for this. “Just because the candidates have not spoken out does not mean they don’t have ideas… they are unsure how they would play in a new media environment where Time wouldn’t even cover something as big as the defeat of the Test Ban Treaty.” There are salient differences, he insists, within and between the parties. “Gore wants to continue expanding Nato, Bradley does not. Bradley takes a narrow view of the national interest, while Gore does not. Gore is a convinced free trader, and Bradley says he is, but he adds that the AFL-CIO [the trade union body which fears that free trade could drive down US wages] has a point.” Indeed, if you look at the small print, some interesting positions have been taken. Bush, fearing that his inexperience of foreign affairs might be a handicap, rallied the foreign policy elite from his father’s administration to draft a speech, delivered at the Reagan library in November. His China policy-“We will help Taiwan defend itself”-is a soft form of the containment strategy which George F Kennan devised for the Soviet Union in the cold war. “If I’m president, China will find itself respected as a great power but in a region of strong democratic alliances. It will be unthreatened, but not unchecked,” Bush said. The main theme of the speech was to promise “a distinctly American internationalism, of idealism without illusions, confidence without conceit, realism in the service of American ideals… America cherishes freedom, but we do not own it. We propose our principles, we must not impose our culture.” Aside from China, the most striking commitment was to free trade. “The case for trade, which Ronald Reagan taught us was ‘a forward strategy for freedom’-is not just monetary, but moral.” But even when the candidates say something striking, they echo one another. Gore has made a similar point about the moral case for free trade. As vice-president when Clinton deployed the aircraft carriers after China staged some provocative missile tests off Taiwan, Gore would seem committed to a broadly similar strategy of containment lite towards China. despite senator biden’s cautions, this is becoming the election that ideology forgot, and there are some obvious explanations. The US is enjoying a splendid period of peace and prosperity. Peace may not be the precise word for the lone superpower which keeps its garrisons in Europe and Asia, its peacekeepers in Bosnia and Kosovo, its aircraft carriers within steaming distance of the Taiwan Strait, and now seems poised to deploy troops to the Golan Heights. And prosperity is barely adequate to describe the results of eight years of growth, with inflation tamed, unemployment down to 4 per cent and the stock market at twice the level it was at when Greenspan first warned of “irrational exuberance.” Peace and prosperity is a combination the US has scarcely known since the 1920s, when the long crisis began which brought us, in Arthur Schlesinger’s famous phrase, “the imperial presidency.” Roosevelt assumed unprecedented powers for the federal government to tackle the Great Depression: from wage and price controls to federal authority over the distribution of the national income. In the process, the proportion of GDP spent by the federal government more than doubled, from 5 to 12 per cent, and the second world war took that share to almost 50 per cent. During the Korean war the defence budget alone hit 15 per cent of GDP; dropping to 11 per cent during the Vietnam war. That defence budget, which allows the US to spend more on defence than the planet’s next ten leading military powers combined, is currently just over 3 per cent of GDP. The federal government as a whole is now spending less than 20 per cent of GDP. When Bill Clinton announced in 1996 that “the era of big government is over,” he was signalling that the imperial presidency was reverting to its humbler and more traditional role. The coming of free trade has shrunk federal tariff receipts (which provided the bulk of 19th-century revenues) and eroded presidential authority over the nation’s commerce. The president’s fiscal powers are being invaded by the verdicts of the markets-as well as by the new prestige of the Fed following Alan Greenspan’s long stewardship. Also, in the US system of checks and balances, presidential powers depend a great deal on prestige and custom; Congress often feels obliged to concede those issues closest to a president’s heart. When presidents lose, as Woodrow Wilson lost ratification of the treaty which would have taken the US into the League of Nations after the first world war, power shifts palpably to Congress. Clinton has lost too many of the big ones. He lost the battle for national health care. More recently, he lost his “fast-track” authority to expedite negotiations which would have brought Chile into Nafta. Last year he lost the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty. It is no accident that the once-grandiose plans of his State of the Union addresses have shrunk to tiny reforms such as the plan to bring back school uniforms and widen tax allowances for college fees. The end of the cold war has also removed something more portentous from the president’s armoury. The constitution grants to Congress alone the right to declare war. But in 1945, the coming of the atomic bomb, together with memories of Pearl Harbour, required President Truman to assume this power for himself and his successors. He placed the atom bomb under presidential authority, and made it clear that the threat of a sudden nuclear attack might require the president alone to declare war, without consulting Congress. Indeed, throughout the cold war this ultimate power was delegated to the military commanders, in the event that the president and his cabinet were incapacitated. We have now reverted to the status quo ante. In December 1990, the Bush White House gnawed its nails as Congress debated whether to authorise military action in Kuwait. And recall Clinton’s difficulties in sending troops to Bosnia. (But for Senate leader Bob Dole’s revulsion at Serb behaviour, American peacekeepers might never have gone.) In January the Supreme Court issued a verdict which signals a further waning of the powers of the federal government, agreeing with the federal appeals court in the state of Virginia that individual states are not required by the US Constitution to enforce the federal Violence Against Women Act. Like many other federal laws, including those involving discrimination and civil rights, this law’s authority rests on Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives the federal government the right to regulate inter-state commerce. Since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, Section 8 has been the federal government’s weapon against the power of the individual states, but it is now dissolving. The Supreme Court has also decided that the states are not bound by federal laws on age discrimination, refusing an attempt by a Florida state employee to sue for discrimination in the federal courts. but, beyond this eclipse of the imperial presidency, there is another explanation for this year’s lacklustre election. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, was mis-named. It was really about the end of ideology: the resolution of the long tussle between left and right. Clinton played to this, denouncing in his 1992 manifesto “the brain-dead old parties of left and right,” and promising to be a New Democrat who could soar above the old divisions. And we have since had New Labour in Britain and the Neue Mitte in Germany. In Europe the third way may look like a cynical device, a Blair-Schr?der chorus of “Me too” in homage to Clinton’s success at winning elections. But the European political experience remains different, marked by clearer and more rooted ideological distinctions which have little relevance to the blurred election process now under way in the US. It is not sufficient to say that since Blair and Schr?der have embraced free markets, independent central banks and streamlining of the welfare state, we have entered the American world of indistinguishably centrist politics. For Britain, the thorny issue of Europe and the euro continues to place a clear and crucial choice at the heart of the political process. In Germany, the trade unions remain undefeated by anything like the Reagan-Thatcher onslaught, and the traditional left remains a distinct political force in both the old eastern and western regions, as it does in Italy and Spain. A European third way looks rather more like an aspiration, and is thus more problematic and more challenging than in the US, where it is a simpler reflection of the current political condition. There are some historical explanations for this. First, the tradition of bipartisanship is more strongly established in the US. It is 70 years since any Republican president has had a full term with his party enjoying a majority in both houses of Congress. Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Bush all had to work with Democrats to achieve anything. Clinton has worked with the Republicans to enact his free trade agenda, even cooperating with the leaders of a Congress which was trying to impeach him. Second, American politicians are more accustomed to a system in which the lines of authority are blurred by the powers of the Supreme Court and the states, and local bodies such as school boards. Third, as leaders of a military alliance, US presidents since the founding of Nato have understood the need to work with politicians of different, even hostile, ideologies, from the quasi-fascist pre-1974 Portugal to convinced socialists in France, Greece and Scandinavia. Nevertheless something new is afoot this year. Election debates are seldom so light on policy clashes; over the past 30 years, Americans have usually had to make some serious choices. In 1968, they had to weigh Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the Vietnam war against the lifelong progressive commitment of Hubert Humphrey. Four years later, the choice lay between Nixon (who had not ended the war) and the anti-war Senator George McGovern. In 1976, they chose Jimmy Carter’s sanctimony over Nixon’s heir, Gerald Ford, who had reigned over the humiliating helicopter scuttle from Saigon. In 1980, the choice between the hapless Carter and the devout conservative Reagan was as sharp a confrontation as the US had seen in living memory, and it was repeated four years later between Reagan and Walter Mondale. In 1988, George Bush promised “read my lips-no new taxes,” although the cold war was not yet over (“the Bear is still in the woods”)-while Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis said that it was. The 1992 election, fought in the wake of a mild recession, saw Clinton (“It’s the economy, stupid”) beat Bush with the promise of a stimulus package to restart the economy and a national health insurance scheme, neither of which was delivered. Clinton won again in 1996, against former Senator Bob Dole’s alluring pledge of a massive tax cut. No such pivotal issue has yet emerged this year-not even the referendum on Bill Clinton, which all candidates except Gore hoped would shape the campaign. American politics is not living in the past of the cold war, nor even in the present of the messy post-cold war world of Clinton’s public achievements and private shames, but in a nebulous future. Among Republican and Democratic contenders alike, the most potent theme has been the various ways to spend the fairy gold of the future. The recurrent annual $200-300 billion federal budget deficits of the 1980s have given way-thanks to Clinton’s compact with Greenspan to attack the deficit in return for lower interest rates-to a virtuous circle in which the deficit has become a high and rising budget surplus. This year’s surplus of $124 billion has been projected into the future by bodies such as the Congressional Budget Office, and the current estimate is that the accumulated surplus, over the next ten years, should come within a whisker of $2 trillion (about a quarter of the US’s current annual GDP). Those cheery forecasts, however, depend on the continuation of current policies and conditions. They do not, for example, take account of how the oil price has tripled over the last year, nor of the possibility of a stock market crash. Since politicians may be defined as people who make careers out of spending other people’s money, this huge pile of promised loot at the end of the rainbow has come to dominate the presidential race. Governor Bush would pillage the surpluses to offer $485 billion in tax cuts over the next five years. Senator McCain offers half that sum, while using the rest to shore up the social security system against the coming tidal wave of baby-boomers reaching retirement and demanding their pension. Rather than tax cuts, the two main Democratic contenders promise to fund social security and offer various attempts to tackle the unfinished business of the Clinton years: the fact that more than 40m Americans still have no health insurance, and most of the rest are increasingly dissatisfied with the healthcare they get. This is because Clinton’s failed attempt to provide a national health system spurred the efforts of the private sector to control the rise in health costs. A great shift has taken place from traditional insurance, in which the insurer paid the doctor and hospital for the services they saw fit to provide, to a system of health maintenance organisations (HMOs), which limit strictly the services and drugs that a doctor or hospital may provide, and also limit the fees that they can be paid. The HMOs have made a striking commitment to preventive medicine, insisting that their clients have regular check-ups so that problems may be spotted early. But the HMOs’ cost controls are making doctors less rich and increasingly restless, while patients are unhappy with the service they get, as they are rushed out of hospitals and into cheaper home care. with the campaign devoid of the clash of ideas and even policies, money counts for more than ever. After the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries the Republican race is down to Bush’s money and party machine versus McCain’s freshness, character and post-New Hampshire momentum. The Democratic race has tilted towards Gore after he withstood Bradley’s pre-Christmas surge in the polls. Gore won Iowa comfortably, despite being outspent in television advertising. And although Gore’s second victory margin was narrow, it dismayed Bradley supporters who counted on winning to attract uncommitted Democrat cash. Hillary Clinton could be a decisive figure in the money race. Her decision to campaign for the Senate against New York mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, may undercut Gore’s chances of raising sufficient campaign funds to match the Bush juggernaut, because the wealthy liberals of New York must now choose whether to make their donations this year to him or to her. In the week before the Iowa caucuses on 24th January, the tally of fund-raising stood at: Bush, $67m; Gore, $28m; Bradley, $28m; McCain, $16m. For an incumbent vice-president who can boast of some share in the economic stewardship that has just recorded the longest-ever period of sustained growth in US history, this is a dismal performance in the essential art of modern US politics. Bush has raised so much money that he has chosen to do without federal matching funds-which carry with them the burden of rigorous accounting. A recent Newsweek investigation revealed how the Bush bankroll was built up. Under the current rules, which limit individual donations to $1,000, “bundling” donations from executives in particular industries is the way to maximise the take. The Bush campaign’s computer count of its business friends is a powerful inducement to other industries to organise their own donations. One reason why Bush has chosen to forego federal funds is that they only become available after the party conventions in August formally select the candidates. Bush expects to have won by then, following the experience of Clinton’s 1996 campaign. Thanks to those nights in the Lincoln bedroom for generous donors (a snip at $250,000), Clinton and the Democrats had amassed so much “soft” money (to be spent on such vague goals as voter-education and party-building) that Clinton television ads ran solidly through the spring and summer months of 1996. The Democrats accounted for $140m of the “soft” money spent in that campaign. The Republican Bob Dole, by contrast, with only $83m in “soft” money, had exhausted his funds in the internecine battles of the primaries. Dole “went dark,” as the phrase for the absence of television ads has it, from May until September, while Clinton’s ads hammered home his advantage. Bush has no intention of going dark this summer. Unless something dramatic happens to his fundraising, Gore looks like being outspent into invisibility, and Hillary Clinton will be partly to blame. John McCain, the most attractive candidate because he has so little of the in-built caution and solemnity of the conventional campaigner, claims to be running (in part) because of the way fundraising distorts democracy. Indeed, the harshest words which Bush has yet used against him have been deployed to attack the campaign finance reform bill which McCain introduced in the Senate. McCain’s plan “hurts Republicans and would hurt the conservative cause,” Bush said. Bush prefers to make the system transparent through voluntary disclosure, and has listed all his donations on his website. Those figures listed above for the funds raised so far are but a fraction of the real costs. In 1992, for the first time the presidential election season topped $1 billion, including the sums spent by Senate and House candidates and by the parties. The presidential race alone cost $311m in 1992-and $800m in 1996, according to figures produced by the Centre for Responsive Politics. This year, the total for all elections looks likely to top $2 billion, partly because these conventional fundraisers have been joined by the single-issue groups who can exercise formidable leverage on candidates through relatively cheap local ad campaigns. In Arizona, McCain’s own state, the Sierra Club is running a television campaign to win federal protection for hundreds of thousands of acres of Arizona’s deserts and wilderness. But in its repeated references to McCain’s reluctance to back the legislation, it sounds like an anti-McCain ad. Campaign funds and television ads only work at the margin. All the wealth of Ross Perot bought him only 19 per cent of the vote in 1992 and 8 per cent in 1996, and Steve Forbes’s millions have bought him no more than a leading role among the also-rans. A strong candidate with clear appeal, who can catch the imagination of the electorate, like Carter in 1976, can beat the moneybags. But in the absence of clear distinctions between politicians, money counts for more, which is why Gore and Bush must still be seen as the frontrunners for the nominations, and Bush as the more likely winner in November. Doubtless we will all be riveted as the race approaches the finishing line. But this year’s election for the less-than-imperial presidency may not be the one to watch. The power of Congress to block presidential plans for health reform or tax cuts, or to bring the troops home from the Balkans, or to forbid the president from completing any more free trade agreements, means that the elections for all members of the House and one-third of the senators will be of crucial importance. The current polls suggest that the Democrats will regain a narrow control of the House, while the Republicans hold the Senate. “The best thing that could happen to George Bush -if he wins-is a Democratic Congress,” says Senator Biden. “If he means it when he says he is an internationalist, for free trade and for compassionate conservatism, he won’t get there with the Republicans. They won’t spend $25 billion for a Syrian-Israeli peace settlement. They will say, why spend $100 billion a year on troops in Europe? Why stay in Nato? They’ll go for a national missile defence system [NMD, a system which it if works will shield the US against missile attack] at a full cost of $1.8 trillion that is not shared with Europe and Japan.” Biden has a point. A Bush presidency, backed by Republican majorities in both Houses of Congress, could make the kind of changes-from massive tax cuts to an isolationist foreign policy-which Bill Clinton has successfully resisted since 1994. Experience suggests that this is unlikely. Thomas Mann, in the Brookings Institution Journal, notes: “Both parties have suffered stinging defeats on major policy initiatives (national health care reform for the Democrats; cutting government and reducing taxes for the Republicans), which has spawned a very cautious approach to policy-making and put a premium on defensive tactics and symbolic position taking.” Jonathan Rauch, in the National Journal, suggests that the defeats of the two reformers, Clinton and Newt Gingrich, show that any reform agenda will be blocked by specific constituencies resulting in “perpetual stalemate.” But if the conventional wisdom is right in expecting little change for Americans from this election year, the rest of the world may not be so lucky. Clearly Tony Blair’s special relationship with the White House will have to be laboriously rebuilt if Bush wins. Europe’s new Security and Defence Initiative, to which Clinton gave a fair wind, will face a suspicious Congress and a president whose father authorised the “Bartholomew Letter” of 1991, which warned Europe that a defence structure separate from Nato would put at risk the US commitment to the Atlantic Alliance. American support for the peace process in the middle east and in Northern Ireland could falter without Clinton’s personal commitment. Above all, a large investment of American resources in NMD could have implications far beyond protection from attacks by rogue states such as North Korea or Iraq. An America which felt itself invulnerable-as it thought it was before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour-would develop a different psychology from the instinctive internationalism of the past 60 years. Given the US’s foreign investments and export markets, in an economy where trade now accounts for more than a quarter of GDP, it would be unlikely to retreat into a classic 1920s-style isolationism. But from peace-keeping missions to cooperation with the UN , from international treaties on environmental protection to compromises on trade, the difference between an engaged and an invulnerable America is likely to be serious. The rest of the world has always had a stake in American presidential elections. This year, the stakes may be higher for the foreigners-be they Russian reformers or Chinese nationalists, European traders or Israeli peacemakers-than it is for Americans who seem so bored by the campaign that voters are telling pollsters to expect the lowest turnout in history.