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Shrub Bush and the crackup of the Republican Party

A multi-billion dollar campaign to install George Bush junior in the White House is coming unstuck. Dave Cunningham sees Vice President Gore emerging as the front runner while Ralph Nader's independent Green candidacy could turn the heat on the Democrats over the next term.

".Despite Gore's lacklustre [ecological] record riding shotgun for Bill Clinton, the vast majority of Democrats will stick with him. Gore's great strengths are, first and foremost, the booming economy with its stock-market driven 'wealth effect' and second, that he is not George W. Bush.." (Dan Hamburg, former California Congressman and current Ralph Nader supporter).

Writing recently on the upcoming US Presidential election Pete Smith offered up a snapshot of the various campaigns as they were just beginning to unfold at the beginning of the year. As Smith describes, the US media were saying that the George W. Bush presidential campaign was rapidly approaching an irresistible force, awash in millions of advertising dollars, with an astronomically large lead in the polls over Republican and Democratic Party contenders alike. (This was the "Media Coronation" interlude.) The only cloudy patch on Bush's sky one could even anticipate was the coming showdown with the billionaire self-financing and all-around dirty player, Steve Forbes, whose flat tax proposals were believed to be popular and whose unprincipled attacks had done serious damage to former candidate Bob Dole during the last election cycle.

At the same time as Bush was riding his juggernaut, over in the Democratic Party camp, Al Gore's largely discounted campaign had apparently stalled. Not only was Gore a million miles behind the front runner in the polls, he was a terminally boring and robot-like man, in serious need of a makeover and facing a strong, even possibly lethal, challenge from the left from former Senator and popular athlete Bill Bradley. Gore, moreover, was trapped by his association with the Clinton Administration.

Very little of this was even close to accurate. As of the time of writing this, in mid-April, Bush has blown his former 25 point lead in the polls and is in a statistical dead heat with Gore; he has also squandered most of the $70 million war chest his advisers had earmarked for the summer propaganda offensive. Steve Forbes was totally irrelevant, except insofar as Bush had to propose his own regressive tax plan to counter him.

Meanwhile, John McCain, barely on anyone's radar last December until he replaced Bill Bradley as the media's darling, wiped out the hapless Bush in the New Hampshire primary and then beat him again in Michigan. One of McCain's selling points in New Hampshire, amusingly enough, was to ridicule Bush's massive tax cut programme as a giveaway to the rich. Of course it is, but this is not usually the approach of Republican candidates in Republican primary elections! In order to score a victory over McCain in South Carolina Bush was forced spend millions and utilize vicious whispering campaigns, push-polls and other tactics so sleazy as to overshadow those of his father against Michael Dukakis in 1988, heretofore a benchmark of the genre.

As a result Bush ended up exactly where he didn't want to be, publicly aligned with some of the ugliest creatures of the Christian Right. This has made a joke of his "compassionate conservative" image, among other things. To add to the shambles, in recent days Bush has refused to coordinate his campaign and his agenda with Congressional Republicans, and many of the latter see no gain any longer in associating their approaches with him or trying to ride his coattails, since in most places there aren't any coattails to ride.

Even more bad news for Bush: despite the fact that Ross Perot's Reform Party structurally has collapsed into a laughingstock of control freaks and blowhards it still retains ballot status and will receive federal funds worth millions for the November election. Pat Buchanan will be the Presidential candidate for Reform, and for the racists, anti-semites, the anti-abortionists and the counterculture-bashers, the homophobic and the anti-immigration activists in the Republican Party unwilling to mute themselves through November, Our Pat offers a voice and a home. This actually sets tight limits on any possible urge Bush may feel to soften his approach on gays and abortion rights.

Meanwhile on the left, Ralph Nader is again standing for the Green Party, albeit with a serious campaign this time. He and the Greens claim a long-range perspective. His supporter Dan Hamburg (quoted above) writes that not only do the Green Party's campaign goals seem realistic in the long run, but that Nader is "serious about the absolute necessity of building a real alternative party of the left. If the state Green Parties around the country coalesce around him, Nader can draw the necessary 5% of the national vote to qualify the party for federal matching funds of at least $15 million in 2004. That's enough money to build a machine that will eat the Democrats' lunch in four years.." Nader is currently polling around 5%.

So far as the Democratic Party is concerned, the threatened Bradley insurgency of last winter proved to be little more than media puffery. His "left" image was belied by the fact that a lot of his fundraising came from Republicans and the big pharmaceutical companies, and that it was hard to distinguish his views or voting record from either Clinton or Gore. All three men stand on the conservative end of the liberal spectrum. in fact, programmatically Bill Clinton is the most conservative Democratic President of the past hundred years. Bradley was able to offer a contest only in New Hampshire; Gore's margins were huge in all the rest.

In actual fact, so damaged is Bush's campaign at the present time there is a good likelihood that, come Autumn, he will give up campaigning in California altogether. Bush's strength in New York State is probably on a par with California, i.e., zero. For those familiar with the arcana of US presidential elections California and New York alone add up to 87 Electoral College votes, a third of what's necessary to win.

One can only conclude that in the absence of some truly cataclysmic event (something on the level of a major war or a major assassination in this country or a stock market collapse a la 1929) Al Gore will win the presidency, probably by landslide proportions. If this were to happen Gore would be able to name two or three people to the Supreme Court, thus breaking the long-standing conservative stranglehold over the courts. In addition the Republicans would certainly lose their majority in the House of Representatives (which they've held since '94, though in diminishing numbers) and could conceivably even lose the Senate.

At the very least a Gore victory will force a major realignment inside the Republican Party, necessitating a purge of the far right and the Christian Coalition if they ever want to win another election. More likely it would precipitate a split into its various factions and the demise of the Republicans as a party, an experience much like what happened to the Whigs of the Nineteenth Century. McCain's fierce denunciation of the leadership of the Christian Coalition in the waning days of the South Carolina primary probably sounded to him as his opening statement for his own Presidential campaign in 2004, but it may prove much more fundamental.

As to how and why all this happened: throughout the whole postwar period until the late 1980s, the Republican Party was chiefly defined by two planks: it was the party of anticommunism and militarism. Its occasional earlier reputation for financial rectitude did not in the main survive its capitulation to crackpot supply side-ism, a.k.a. Reaganomics.

With the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc, the party was left without a mission or a focus. Despite the ability on rare occasions to organize itself, as in the 1994 off-year elections (the 'Republican Revolution') when they won both the House and Senate on a small voter turnout) they have shown little capacity to lead or formulate a programme, and the Daddy Bush campaign in 1992 and the Dole campaign in 1996 were downright pitiful. Though there are several isolated fragments and agendas at any given moment in the party, the main fault line is between the old-line establishment economic conservatives on the one hand and the grassroots social conservatives on the other. Although they need one another, the former for legitimacy and the latter for cadres and grassroots, they increasingly appear to have nothing in common save as a bloc of convenience.

The current Bush campaign had its origins in the debacle among the various Republican factions after the disappointing 1998 congressional elections. Under the leadership of Newt Gingrich House Republicans attempted to exploit the media/Kenneth Starr circus atmosphere surrounding the exposure of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky dalliance in February 1998 into a big-time victory. Gingrich was quoted as confidently expecting to add some 40 seats to his majority in the House. They instead lost 5 seats, which left them with a very thin edge. Whipping themselves up into a puritanical frenzy they voted Articles of Impeachment against Clinton, totally without constitutional justification or any bi-partisan support whatsoever and in the face of vast and loudly expressed public disapproval. The Senate trial of course refused to convict the President, as everyone knew it would, and the Republican witchhunt looked pointless, mean and out of touch.

This episode of loony-right self-disembowelling frightened other wings of the Republican establishment who understandably did not want a rerun of such shenanigans going on during the presidential elections in 2000. One of these groups was the more moderate Republican Governors Conference which decided to do an end run around the nomination process, naming one of their own in order to preempt fringe candidates like Bauer or Quayle, popular among Republican core activists but anathema to the American citizenry.

The Governors Conference selected Bush apparently because of his name (for name recognition purposes and for his connection with the old Bush Administration), for his ties to Texas oil billionaires and for his fund raising ability. So selected he was supposed to collect a massive financial base and create a juggernaut effect that would intimidate and overwhelm most other potential Republican candidates.

Bush has no platform to speak of, only the amorphous mantra "compassionate conservatism" and a campaigning posture as the Anti-Clinton; over and over again he has promised to "bring back honour and decency to the White House", the latter presumably sullied by Clinton's sexual escapades. (This purer-than-thou stance proved not a good idea, as rumours surfaced about Shrub's party-animal past, and purse-lipped uptight Republicans who had spent the past eight years sniffing at Bill Clinton as a pot-smoking draft dodger were not much amused by stories about cocaine toots and a rich-kid privileged military career guarding the Texas coastline during the war in Vietnam.)

The best the left can probably hope for in this election is a Gore victory, a resounding defeat of the right, and an indication that a movement to the left, perhaps around the Greens, has begun to coalesce. The labour leadership has shown many signs recently of wanting to act independently; there exists a bloc of convenience with Gore where they agree to disagree over globalization. Bush is too far to the right and too vociferously anti-labor for the labor movement to take a "plague on both your houses" attitude in this election, but if the right is drastically weakened this time around, the excuse that the Democrats are the lesser evil won't work anymore in the future. The staples of the Democratic Party - the environment, abortion rights, the economy, health care and gun control - are genuinely popular and address felt needs. The problem for many is that the Democratic Party doesn't take them seriously. If Nader has a successful impact in this election period, he will at least be able to hold Gore's feet to the fire for the next four years.