Bush-hating becomes a US way of life
THE toilet in Manhattan read like a foul-mouthed summary of the latest Michael Moore book. "BushIn the bar, talk kept returning to politics and the protest planned for George W Bush’s arrival in New York for his party’s convention the week after next. "It can’t be too violent," warns one. "That’s what he wants."
This is the level of fever in the US presidential elections and, to British ears, the debate is strikingly familiar. People hate President Bush now in the same way that they hated Margaret Thatcher in the Eighties. The fury dynamic is at work.
It is in evidence everywhere. The anti-Bush tomes in British bookshops are a small sample of those for sale in America, competing for the most hysterical title.
It is almost as if President Bush has driven the liberals mad.
In California, effigies of the president are sold in tourist shops, apparently to be burnt on the beach. Bush punchbags are doing brisk trade: "Anyone but Bush" stickers are on cars. Bush-hating has become a national sport.
And to Brits living in New York, the feeling is nostalgic. "It’s like having the poll-tax protests all over again," said one expatriate. "Everyone hates Bush, in the same way that everyone hated Thatcher."
But this was a Manhattan "everyone", meaning those crammed into the urban island which has long considered itself the centre of the universe. Outside the cities, America is evenly split - and utterly polarised.
The US is also wrestling with another ghost from Eighties Britain. Headlines in the American newspapers tell about unemployment rising, factories closing down, and towns being robbed of the jobs which kept the community together.
In the Eighties, these were called the "Thatcherite redundancies" as Britain closed down coal and steel factories, with workers being laid off as the government decided to import goods instead.
In America, the process of factory closures has a new label: "outsourcing" or "shipping jobs abroad", and fury on this front is driving the anti-Bush campaign in states such as Ohio, Missouri and Arkansas.
So should Mr Bush be worried that he is hated to the same degree that Margaret Thatcher was? Electorally, it is no bad thing: for all her detractors, the Iron Lady was never defeated in the polls.
This is President Bush’s fault. Like Thatcher, he has made no attempt to build a "big tent", including factions of the enemy. He has given up assuaging those opposed to him and, if anything, seems to delight in their fury.
Choosing New York for the Republican National Convention is seen by most in the city as incendiary - roughly equivalent to holding the 1990 Conservative Party conference in East Glasgow. For Mr Bush, Manhattan is lion’s den central.
It’s also the scene of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks - and going back there sends out a signal of defiance which is central to the appeal of today’s Bush administration and was so to Thatcher’s Conservative Party.
Karl Rove, Mr Bush’s chief political adviser, has developed the same strategy as the Tories developed in the Eighties: don’t waste any time trying to appease political enemies. Elections are decided by the quiet ones.
Angry voters don’t have more say. Electorally, it matters nothing whether New York is ambivalently against Mr Bush or whether it is one step away from a unilateral declaration of independence (as seems the case now).
Just as suburban Britain decides the race for 10 Downing Street, a handful of largely rural voters in about 17 landlocked states will decide the White House race. And these areas have always seen themselves as breeds apart.
The liberal way of life of the cities is alien to the church-going, gun-owning populations of Arkansas and Arizona, whose position as knife-edge states makes them far more important than New York or San Francisco.
Those undecided are watching with alarm at the debate on either side of the American coast. If New York does break out into a riot, this event would certainly act as a recruiting sergeant for the Republicans.
Arthur Scargill, after all, unwittingly rallied millions of votes to the Conservative Party in the Eighties. Voters may not have liked Margaret Thatcher, but they hated the militant trade unions.
THE Bush supporters are from a conservative coalition, only part of which admires the president. Many choose to identify themselves with car stickers reading "God Bless America" rather than "Bush-Cheney 2004".
Their logic: the president may not be the sharpest tool in the box, they argue, but at least you know what he stands for. This, for years, was the mantra of those who disliked Margaret Thatcher but voted for her anyway.
This is the paradox of politics: there is no direct link between being hated, and losing power. Strength can be a virtue in itself: radicalisation of your opponents makes you the champion of the moderates.
Margaret Thatcher had another secret weapon in 1983: the Social Democratic Party, which split Labour support and handed the Tories a thumping majority on a smaller share of the vote.
Today, in America, this task is being dutifully filled by Ralph Nader, who is supported by those who think that John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for the White House, is too conservative.
There has never been a real place for a third party in US politics: the country which offers 27 choices of shampoo has only two real choices for president. Even now, Mr Nader barely registers on the opinion-poll radar.
But in a country where the last White House race was won by 269 votes in Florida, the three million votes which Mr Nader is set to pick up this year could well be decisive.
Mindful of this lesson, Republican donors who are banned from giving any more money to President Bush are filling Mr Nader’s coffers - Richard Egan, who raised $200,000 for the Republicans last time, is a top Nadar donor.
This is why Michael Moore recently went down on his knees on live television and begged Mr Nader to withdraw. The split in the Left could save Bush now - just as it saved the Conservatives in 1983.
Mr Kerry knows he must be as conservative as possible to win: and praises Mr Bush’s "charm" on national television to try to calm down the fevered battle doing his campaign such harm in the cities.
Mr Bush’s ability to ignore huge chunks of America’s 130 million voters is made possible by the same constituency system which, in Britain, allowed the Thatcher government to win time and time again.
That is why a visit to any major US city will not give any fresh intelligence on how the campaign is going. It is the people without the car stickers who will decide the most important, and closely-fought, election in the world.
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