Allan Massie: Mediocrity and money in US election

Hillary Clinton is the favourite to win the Democratic nomination and she is bidding to become the first female president. Picture: Getty
Hillary Clinton is the favourite to win the Democratic nomination and she is bidding to become the first female president. Picture: Getty
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The Bush and Clinton show returns, with Jeb and Hillary favourites to contest next year’s battle for the White House, and it’s a sorry saga, argues Allan Massie

Watching Jeb Bush announce his candidacy, my first thought was that this guy doesn’t look like a president; he has a soft, rather silly, face and a cheesy smile. He looks less impressive that his elder brother George W, less impressive than his father, George H, and that’s saying something. On the other hand none of the dozen or so Republican contenders is impressive either. They make Mitt Romney look like a statesman.

Jeb Bush launches his White House bid, looking less than presidential. Picture: Getty

Jeb Bush launches his White House bid, looking less than presidential. Picture: Getty

Still, flip the coin, and consider that, unless her campaign comes unstuck, Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic candidate, and that’s not very impressive either. How many Americans can be happy to think that the eight years of Obama may represent only an intermission in the Bush-Clinton duopoly? Frankly, that thought makes even the Kennedys seem attractive. It’s hard to imagine that many, whatever their party allegiance , are going to be enthused or excited by a Jeb-Hillary contest.

It may not happen. Jeb may well fail to win the Republican nomination , no matter how well-financed his campaign is. People may look at him and say it’s not on. But you can’t be sure. Brother George W’s retrospective rating has just risen over 50 per cent.

The US is the world’s greatest democracy, but one where electoral success depends first and foremost on the amount of money you can raise. A boy born poor can become president . There are plenty of examples within living memory: Lyndon B Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton himself, and Barack Obama. But at some point along the road, big money has to attach itself to them. Jeb Bush was born to money; Hillary Clinton has acquired it. The Clintons are now probably even richer than Tony Blair.

In 2006 Obama aroused enthusiasm for obvious reasons. Electing him was breaking through the race barrier – even though as the son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother Obama had little in common with most Black Americans. Electing Hillary would also break a barrier; she would be the first female president. For some this might be the best reason to vote for her; for others the only one. It’s her principal advantage. Her own political record, as first a senator for New York and then a globe-trotting secretary of state is hardly inspiring. Conversely it‘s difficult to see any reason, other than party loyalty and dislike of Mrs Clinton, to vote for Jeb Bush, if he is the Republican candidate.,

Long ago it didn’t matter to the rest of the world if the president of the USA was mediocre; a lot of them were. But for almost a hundred years now, since Woodrow Wilson took America into the First World War (after being elected on a ticket promising not to do that) it has mattered a lot. The term “leader of the Free World” may have a somewhat hollow ring today, but it still means something. In foreign affairs Barack Obama has been a cautious , even inactive, president. For this, after the activism of George W Bush, many may offer sincere thanks. He has kept America out of any disastrous war. On the other hand the Middle East is an even worse disaster-area than when George W handed over the keys of the White House; and Obama’s response to the crisis in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s adventurism has been restrained to the point of feeble. None of the problems that confronted him when he became president – notably the resolution of the Israel- Palestinian conflict, or the nuclear ambitions of Iran – have been solved. Perhaps they are insoluble. But if the West has looked for leadership from the White House, it hasn’t been forthcoming.

There’s no reason to suppose either Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush capable of supplying such leadership. As secretary of state from 2008 to 2012, one had the impression that she had her eyes fixed on the 2016 presidential election. Jeb Bush, on the other hand, has no experience of international politics, and there is nothing to suggest he has prepared himself for the challenges America faces in the world. He may be almost as ignorant as Jimmy Carter was when he entered the White House in 1976.

Sometimes people grow in office., as Harry Truman did. An undistinguished senator for Missouri, he was a surprise choice as Franklin D Roosevelt’s vice-president in 1944, and took over when Roosevelt died the following April. His experience of the world beyond the USA was restricted to service in the American army in France in the last year of the First World War. But, guided by his secretaries of state, first General George Marshall and then Dean Acheson, he proved surprisingly effective, decisive in the various crises of the first years of the Cold War – in the Berlin air-lift and in his response to North Korea’s invasion of the South. But America was stronger then than it is now, American intervention more welcome, and the world of the Cold War, despite its dangers, more manageable than the world is today.

George W Bush’s Iraq war did the US great damage which Obama has been unable to repair. That war discredited the policy of military interventionism, at home and abroad. Civil war in Syria, the rise of Islamic State, and the anarchy which has reigned in Libya since the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi, are all its direct or indirect consequences. America and the West need a president with an understanding of the world beyond the United States , and a feel for geopolitical realities. There is no reason to suppose that any of those seeking their party’s nomination has the necessary qualifications. Perhaps Hillary Clinton comes closer than Jeb Bush or any of his Republican challengers. Yet one can’t avoid the suspicion that she wants the presidency because she feels entitled to it, rather than because she knows what she would do if elected.

So the prospect of a contest between Jeb and Hillary is profoundly depressing. Only one thing worse: the news that Donald Trump is throwing his hat into the ring. But, since he won’t get anywhere, this offers at least a comic diversion.