Thu, Jul 01, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Your time's up, Mr. Bush

No wonder the US president is running scared -- 25 years of neo-conservative ascendancy in the US may be approaching a painful demise

By Will Hutton  /  THE OBSERVER , London


or my entire journalistic life, the most salient political and cultural fact has been the rise of the American right. It is not just that the US has been governed by Republican presidents or by Bill Clinton within the penumbra of the conservative intellectual and cultural ascendancy; it's that the conservative victory in the battle of ideas in the US has had a spill-over affect on the rest of the West.

It is no accident, for example, that the election of Ronald Reagan launched a fivefold increase in the numbers held in US prisons or that the profound growth of inequality also began with him. Whether it's criminal justice or tax policy, Britain and the industrialized West have been profoundly affected by the retreat of American liberalism.

Would Britain, for example, have so readily retreated from its long-held view that prison is essentially a last resort and that rehabilitation of offenders must be the centerpiece of any penal policy, if it had not been engulfed by the US conservative view that both propositions were wrong?

Equally, would our readiness to stand by progressive taxation have been so weakened without the view from the US that high rates of income tax on the rich are morally and economically wrong?

The UK had prime minister Margaret Thatcher, but her dominance in British politics would arguably have been less secure had it not been for the succor she took from US policies and conservative ideas. Britain is not a slave to US influences, but it cannot ignore the international common sense which the US more than any other nation shapes.

Britain may have elected two Labour governments in succession, but the extraordinary caution of New Labour in championing even a modest social democratic program is itself tribute to how difficult it is to declare independence from the international consensus.

Progressive politics in Britain will gather no momentum until that begins to change -- and that requires change in the US.

Which is why this year's presidential election is so important, not just for the result but for the way the underlying argument is developing. Bush's strategists thought it would all be sewn up by now; they would have defined Democrat challenger Senator John Kerry as a flip-flop, ultra-liberal senator who was unsound on the war against terrorism.

Two-term US presidents have habitually established an unassailable lead over the summer before the November election; the Bush team had hoped to achieve that by now with Kerry. Instead, they are involved in a pitched battle with a growing possibility that they might lose. The Democrats are daring to hope and the Republicans are testy and on edge.

On trust, on economic competence, on approval ratings and on whether he is best for America, Bush's poll ratings are poor and falling. In the majority of so-called "swing" states across the Midwest that Kerry must win, he is registering small but consistent leads; and despite spending a record US$80 million on attack adverts, Bush is trailing Kerry nationally, albeit by a small and fluctuating margin.

Bush is enduring the most wretched months of his presidency. The furore over the maltreatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib; the continuing loss of American lives in Iraq and the sense, despite the handover this week, that the US has lost control of events; the charge by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the US that there was no evidence of a collaborative relationship between al-Qaeda and Saddam have all badly wounded him.

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