A Surreal Sleepwalker with
Little Right to Wield Power
By Hugo Young

The American political system is entirely different from the European, Anglos included. There's no possibility of anything resembling coalition government. The president is the chief executive and appoints his board of management, otherwise known as cabinet, which bears little resemblance to the British version. Government, as Bill Clinton has shown for eight years, needs to be a continuous process of negotiation with Congress. Deals on laws have to be struck within and across parties. But the president is the president, and there can be only one of him.

It should therefore not be surprising that George W Bush's run-up to his inauguration on Saturday has been executively efficient. Only one minister, the would-be labour secretary, proved dead before arrival. The Republican party network didn't go cold in eight years' absence from the White House. Reaching back to Bush I and Gerald Ford, Bush II could draw on a large cohort of departmental chiefs with a track record in the politico-business complex, and create a cabinet in his own image, which is to say, even in American terms, decidedly right-wing.

That's what the system permits, apparently requires. The newly elected president strides undeviating into office. And yet it is extraordinary. It knocks your eyes out. It may be what presidency needs, but its very smoothness is an amnesiac affront to what happened last November. It proceeds as if that election — at best inconclusive, at worst stolen — had nothing unusual about it, nothing that demanded a new kind of response. The transition has passed as if total normality prevailed. This is a necessary consequence of the system, but it's one that surely won't stop there: a sleepwalk into pretence, from which Americans will one day wake up. The question is: when?

Mr Bush's reliance on tranquillity was always striking. Even before he could know the outcome would be very close, he pledged himself to a new kind of politics. It was an insistent part of his campaign. He promised an end to acrimony and division, a purging of the Washington he ridiculed. When the outcome proved unclear, you might have expected these promises to be redoubled. Instead, he reneged on them at every turn. The tighter the result, it seemed, the less not more consensus had to be sought.

First, his new agenda itself pays no regard to compromise. Bush thinks he was elected to do what he said he would do, irrespective of his failure to get a plurality of voters to back him. Thus, for example, he will now withdraw support from any aid organisation that promotes abortions abroad: a strident victory for anti-abortion colonisers. He will go ahead with energy prospecting in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, regardless of opposition. He announces a priority for reversing all Clinton's recent executive actions, especially in the environmental field. None of this has a unifying purpose.

Second, his appointment of John Ashcroft as attorney-general is not a gift to the nation but a gesture to the hard right. Ashcroft is not just an anti-liberal but a throwback to days one naively thought had gone for good from respectable federal politics: a racist, a gun-lobby man, anti-choice and anti-gay, as well as a senator prepared, according to the distinguished columnist Anthony Lewis, to lie to block the nomination of a judge he didn't like. A president humbled by the narrowness of his victory would have found an attorney-general who enjoyed bipartisan respect. Instead Bush puts in charge of the justice system a politician whom few people trust, and the Christian right does not want, to administer laws he disagrees with.

Third, Bush foreshadows a foreign policy which again moves far from the centre ground. He wants to re-think Russia, challenge China and build a national missile defence system. This may prove to be the policy zone where radical change is hardest to implement. We should wait and see what actually happens about NMD, under the hand of a sceptical secretary of state, Colin Powell. But the chorus demanding it, in Republican circles, deepens. All subtleties are swept aside by a state of mind that could hardly be further from the voice of a divided country. Before any of the technical or diplomatic arguments are heard, let alone concluded, comes the assertive claim to a power that brooks no interference. Hearing the voices of Republicanism triumphant, as I did at a recent American Enterprise Institute seminar, one can easily forget, as they do, that Bush got half a million fewer votes than Gore.

Such forceful nonchalance may not seem as startling to Americans as to a European. Maybe America agrees that it must have, above all, a government. Perhaps it doesn't mind much what kind. Maybe it will stand by and watch a right-wing government behaving in a right-wing way. The distance of most voters from Washington makes that easier. The absence of a truly national conversation helps. The closer reality of state governments can make federal anomalies irrelevant in many people's minds. This is a vast country. Besides, George W seems a regular sort of guy, inoffensive, all-American, one of us.

Indifference to what's going on could run still deeper. Maybe the country, while evenly split as to voting, is not deeply divided as to the outcome. It is not, after all, an intensely ideological place. Visceral disagreements are confined to social/moral issues, pre-eminently guns and abortion. This is not a time for large statements, especially about the wider world. There being no Soviet menace, perhaps the identity of the national leader is no longer of vast importance, his legitimacy not a matter of life-and-death. Such, at any rate, must be Bush's hope, as he reflects on the astounding fact that chance and chad have made him president.

I don't believe it will be justified. The system may not allow for coalitions, but the divisions of the electorate call for a coalitionist mentality to handle them. However confidently he moves to take the oath of office, Bush must offer something more subtle than the simple assertion of his power. To that extent, his confident behaviour now is a kind of sham. For the divisions are in truth very deep, geographically and racially if not so much in old-fashioned ideology: between cities and the country, between south-and-west and north-centre-and-east, between black (90-9 the respective Gore-Bush percentages) and white, above all between those who think Bush won and those who know he didn't.

Where these will cause explosions we cannot tell. But they will come. The serenity in which this surreal presidency begins is deceptive. Every mistake Bush makes will excite the same questions: who exactly is this man, and by what right is he there? The rituals of succession can take him to the White House, but provide no bulwark against the doubts that surround his locus, which he refuses, so far, to do anything to appease. The media, the Congress, many of the people, all conspire to make him seem as real as Ike or Reagan. But this can't last. Unless he finds a way to recognise the uniquely narrow limits of his victory, his presidency will unravel and Dubya will eventually be doomed.

Copyright 2001 Hugo Young       Reprinted with permission

This article first appeared in The Guardian (UK) on 18 January 2001.

Hugo Young was the Guardian's senior political commentator.
He died on September 22, aged 64, after an arduous battle against cancer.

The Guardian's website is at www.guardian.co.uk.

An obituary appears at

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