A surreal sleepwalker
Source Dave Anderson
Date 01/01/22/01:05

from British newspaper The Guardian

A surreal sleepwalker with little right to wield power

George W Bush uncompromisingly seizes the prize as US president

Special report: George W Bush's America

Hugo Young
Thursday January 18, 2001

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 rightwing. 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
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 rethink 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 rightwing government behaving in a rightwing
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 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. 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.

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