Bush is far from the only lame duck today
America's mid-term elections reveal a political class adrift in midstream.
After her re-election this week, Hillary Clinton, senator for New York and possible Democratic Party presidential contender, gave a victory speech so devoid of politics that it made her husband Bill, past master of the meaningless soundbite, seem deep and meaningful by comparison. She ended with this three-point plan for the future: ‘God bless you all! God bless New York! God bless America!’ Any advance on three God-blesses?
Empty rhetoric is nothing new at election time of course, in America perhaps least of all. But on all sides, these latest contests seemed even more politically vacuous than, well, the last empty elections two years ago. The mid-terms reveal a snapshot of a political system adrift in midstream, in which nobody appears to have either secure moorings or an effective rudder.
Despite the pre-election hype about a ‘Democrat revolution’ in Congress, the party made relatively modest gains to win a small majority in the lower House of Representatives; at the time of writing, it is still too close to call in the upper house, the Senate. The Democrats are not in a position to sweep far-reaching changes through Congress. Which as it happens is appropriate, since they have no policies with which to do any such thing anyway.
Republican claims that the Bush administration would simply carry on implementing its clear programme after the elections were equally wide of the mark. On the morning after the mid-terms, the US ambassador to the UK told BBC TV that the White House would not be turned because ‘President Bush is a conviction politician’ who would continue to do what he believes in. Which is what, exactly? The Bush administration has not achieved any of the great breakthroughs it promised over the past six years. Even with the Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress, Bush lacked the political authority and ideas to achieve much. Now he will be able to do even less. Yet such is the degraded state of politics, a recalcitrant Congress might even come as a welcome opportunity for the administration to blame the Democrats for setbacks in Iraq or elsewhere.
American politics is thus facing gridlock. Not because there is an even split between ideologically partisan political blocs, but because almost the opposite is true: neither side has any political principles behind which it could develop enough momentum to break the jam.
So, what about Iraq, the issue that has done so much to damage the administration and overshadowed the entire election? Even here there are no sharply drawn lines of debate. The Republicans do not have a clear idea of how to win the war – indeed, in the week of the mid-terms, several top neo-conservatives seen as the architects of the disastrous Iraq mission sought to bail out by publicly attacking the conduct of it. For their part, the Democrats made much of Bush’s failure in Iraq during the campaign. Yet if anything they have even less of a clear line than their opponents. There is no apparent Democrat plan for Iraq, beyond the notion that some sort of ‘change of plan’ is required. They are certainly not an anti-war party, as leading Democrats such as Mrs Clinton would be the first to point out.
It is a remarkable sign of the disorientation of the political elite that in the midst of a drawn-out and divisive military conflict, neither side seems able to offer a coherent case for or against the war. President Bush is far from the only effectively lame-duck politician in Washington today.
The absence of purposeful political debate from the mid-term elections was also highlighted by the other issue that, when polled, voters often put high on their list of concerns: government scandal and congressional sleaze. Scandals ranging from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff buying congressmens’ votes, to Mark Foley sending dirty MSN messages to young male pages on Capitol Hill, seemed to overtake more usual issues on the electoral agenda. As we know from bitter experience in Britain over the past decade, the rise of the anti-sleaze crusade is a symptom of the decline of politics, and the creation of a climate where the personal ‘character’ of an individual politician seems more important than his publicly espoused principles (or the lack of them). The Democrats’ declared determination to create an ‘ethical Congress’ was depressingly reminiscent of Tony Blair’s promise to make politics under New Labour ‘whiter than white’.
The mid-terms have confirmed the peculiar situation in which American society appears deeply polarised yet without experiencing any discernible political divide. There might be personal animosity, so that some Democrats will not speak to somebody they discover to be a Republican, and vice versa. But the two parties are not engaged in a proper political debate. Sure, voters on both sides might express strong opinions about emotive moral/cultural issues such as stem cell research or abortion. But these seem more like high-profile symbols of difference around which to strike poses, rather than part of a genuine struggle over the future direction of American society.
The shrill animosity between ‘red’ and ‘blue’ blocs on the ground reflects the extent to which, at the top, political life without politics has become more petty and personalised. This was evident in the way that the president himself became a big issue in the mid-terms, in a ‘debate’ that one might summarise as being between the ‘I hate Bush’ and ‘We love W’ camps, something closer to a reality TV show vote than a political contest.
When politics becomes so personalised, adrift without proper anchors or deeper meaning, election results can take on an arbitrary, almost patternless character. Thus in the Democratic heartland of Connecticut, Joe Lieberman was re-elected to the Senate as an independent. He had lost the Democratic Party nomination in a presumed anti-war backlash against his support for Bush over Iraq. Yet not only did Lieberman hold the seat anyway, but polls suggest he won support from some anti-war voters who just thought that ‘Joe’s a good guy’. So much for Iraq being the dominant electoral issue.
Elsewhere the Democrats deliberately stood conservative-minded candidates in important areas, for example in Pennsylvania where a senior Republican senator was unseated by Bob Casey, a Democrat who is opposed to both abortion and gun controls. But before anybody starts drawing broad conclusions from that, they might consider the result in Vermont where the maverick neo-socialist independent Bernie Saunders romped to victory on a platform of introducing universal healthcare and taxing the rich. Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the muscular embodiment of Hollywood and mixed-up personality politics, was easily re-elected as governor of California.
The arbitrary, personalised and anti-politics content of the campaigns should prevent anybody getting too excited about the apparently higher-than-average turnouts in these elections. It is a reminder that the act of voting is not necessarily the same thing as being engaged in a political discussion, and that heated contests do not necessarily generate enlightened debates.
The overwhelming impression left by the mid-term elections is one of the disorientation and isolation of the American political elite. Before polling day it was reported that the parties had assembled an army of some 10,000 lawyers, ready to do battle over any electoral irregularities, alleged voter frauds or technical malfunctions that might result. The implicit message from on high was that elections and the unpredictable electorate are not to be trusted, and that the business of government is much safer in the hands of legal experts, Supreme Court judges and congressional committees.
None of this should be seen as peculiar to the USA or somehow an American problem. Indeed, throughout the modern era, the US political system has set the precedents for what follows in Britain and eventually elsewhere in the West. When critics first started talking about the ‘Americanisation of politics’, they usually meant the increasing role of television and PR in election campaigns. Now it might describe the emptying out of mainstream political life everywhere.
The only changes of note brought about by the mid-term elections were more in the realm of identity politics than the real world – the first woman speaker in Congress, the first Islamic congressman in America, and so on. When the election of a Muslim called Keith is greeted with the hyperbolic assertion that ‘We have made history!’, then we can be certain that genuine History-making is off the agenda.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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