Bush has lost

Anthony Barnett
27 October 2004

President Bush has lost. I don’t mean the election – that will be up to the American voters on Tuesday 2 November.

What I mean is that the 43rd United States president, who offers himself to his people as the most righteous and convinced of leaders, has lost the moral right to lead America’s democracy.

Last week I went to an Atlantic Books event in London sponsored by the Sunday Times to launch Irwin Stelzer’s collection of essays on neo-conservatism. The keynote speaker was an eloquent and wide-ranging Bill Kristol of Washington’s Weekly Standard.

He told the invited gathering that Bush was a couple of points ahead in the polls, would probably win and that despite bad mistakes made in Iraq, the United States “would prevail”.

He was not as harsh or uncritical as another leading neocon, Charles Krauthammer – whose attack on Francis Fukuyama is dissected in this edition of openDemocracy by Danny Postel. But what shocked me was the presumption that a narrow Bush win was as good as a landslide. Two points and America would be his.

Should a hardened editor be shocked? In this case certainly. In mid-November 2001, two months after 9/11 when Bush had started to run as a national war leader, his approval rating touched 88%. In the best of current polls for him, it is now just below 50%.

Suppose a Democratic President, one need not mention Clinton, had suffered such a huge loss of popular backing. Wouldn’t this be stamped through him like stigmata by Fox News? A loser of that much popular support while declaring and “winning” a war has clearly not got what it takes to head a country.

It is too glib to say that, “anyway” Bush lost the 2000 election - and then stole it. I believe that the constitutional humiliation America suffered then is hugely important and has been repressed. John Kerry should have made it one of his key domestic issues, committing himself to ensuring a fundamental democratic right: that all Americans have the federal right to vote and to have their vote counted.

This repression has several causes, one of them the feeling that Al Gore had also lost an election that was his to win. Then the whole issue dissolved in the smoke and rubble of the World Trade Center. In its aftermath, that 88% public support made Bush a fully legitimate president of choice.

To be reduced from this to a position of needing to steal the election again by one or two percentage points is a political catastrophe for the president.

There is also the danger that a renewed Bush incumbency will treat a technical success as bestowing a god-endowed right to rule. This could become the first lie of the new administration, if John Berger is right in his analysis of the last four years.

What can the rest of the world do? Well, we have to listen and argue and work for a better democratic politics than the one offered by any of the US candidates.

This requires not partisan intervention (as when the London Guardian decided to entice its readers to contact voters in a swing county of a swing US state, Ohio) but a respectful dialogue of equals. This was the impulse behind openDemocracy’s Letters to Americans project, which by election day itself will have published eighteen exchanges from fifteen countries in four continents - including a Somali journalist, a Bolivian labour organiser, an Israeli settler, an Iraqi mother, a Chinese dissident, and an Iranian philosopher. The aim was to reveal the passionate, complex engagement of people around the world with the United States, and to listen to the varied responses of individual Americans.

The series opened a space where strong and skilful criticism was based on a respect for the best of the United States political process and for the people whose lives are decided by it. Among the keynotes was a sense of spurned affection, leaking – in tomorrow’s striking contribution from Russia, where Sergei Markov, a foreign policy adviser to Vladimir Putin, voices intense anger at American indifference to his country’s national claims – into an anguished defiance that has about it the sense of a historic shift.

Most of the Americans who responded – including philosopher Richard Rorty, international law scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter, African specialist Gayle Smith and historian John Dower – have done so with the unfailing civility that is one outward face of the morally respectful public discourse that the current president and his “folks” (as Godfrey Hodgson ironically describes them) has done so much to undermine.

As Todd Gitlin’s analysis of the three presidential debates showed, it seems that no one has a greater difficulty in communicating with those who disagree with him - his own compatriots as well as non-Americans - than the current president of the United States.

This is not only a deformation of character. It means that whatever American voters decide, Bush has proved he is a loser. He can’t communicate with his own people in all their diversity, and such a president will not be able to lead America in a successful engagement with the world as a whole.

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