Wed, Nov 03, 2004 - Page 9 News List

A salutary political divide



The battle for the White House has unveiled some striking similarities between the US and Taiwan and their current states of democratic development. Voters in both countries are deeply divided along the lines of those who love and hate their current administrations and by extreme irrational views. Such intense divisions highlight the serious problems both systems of government now face and the pressing need for constitutional reform.

Ironically, these similarities became clearer when 11 reporters from Asia, as part of the East-West Center's Jefferson Fellowship Program, observed a presidential debate -- not between US President George W. Bush and challenger Senator John Kerry, but rather the first debate of the 1960 US presidential election, between Republican candidate Richard Nixon and Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy.

History repeats

The most surprising thing about that debate was the string of attacks Kennedy made against Nixon -- they were almost identical to comments made in this year's race.

Kennedy attacked Nixon for letting the economy slide and for letting the unemployment rate rise to its highest level in history. He also attacked Nixon's Vietnam policy.

Kennedy said: "The country is already divided, and I want to reunite America again."

Nixon, however, called on the American people to support a strong leader to take them through difficult times.

In this year's race, Kerry and Bush have made comments so similar that it seems like the race is reenacting the 1960 election.

On the surface, the two elections may seem the same because of domestic and international circumstances.

Roots of division

The real question, however, is this: What is the key source of this division? Is it due to the Bush administration's war on Iraq, or is it the differences between the basic positions of the two parties (on abortion, gay marriage, the federal deficit and healthcare, for example)? Or is it the difference between the character and upbringing of each of the candidates? Or perhaps a little bit of everything?

To try to find that answer, over the past month the journalists traveled to Hawaii, Washington, Boston, Austin and Crawford, Texas, as well as Los Angeles to meet with party representatives, the media and local officials. The group also held talks with leading think tanks and political observers.

It has become increasingly clear from these meetings that voters who gradually turned a cold shoulder to politics over the past 30 years were now actively and aggressively participating in politics.

"More than 90 percent of registered voters had already decided six months to a year ago which candidate they would support," said John Fortier, a research associate with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Fortier said that with few people occupying middle ground, the problem now is that while more than 90 percent of the public feels that Bush is a "consistent and strong leader," at least 50 percent still do not like him.

The political divide has become so pervasive that it is eating into relationships. Lynn Cooksey, executive director of the International Hospitality Council in Austin, said that the situation there is so serious that "even couples are in a cold war because they support different candidates, friends get into fights because of differing opinions, and strangers curse at others when they hear them mention the name of a candidate they do not like."

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