Sat, Nov 06, 2004 - Page 9 News List

This is no passing phase: this is the dawn of a new era

Before this week, leaders and people around the world fell back on the belief that the Bush administration was an extreme anomaly brought about by an electoral fluke. Now they must come to grips with a fundamental rightward shift among the majority of Americans

By Jonathan Freedland  /  THE GUARDIAN , London


Once it looked like an aberration. Now it is an era. US President George W Bush's tenure of the White House was born in 2000 to an electoral quirk, the fruit of a Florida fiasco, the arcane algebra of the US electoral system, and a split decision of the Supreme Court.

It seemed to be the accidental presidency, one that would stand out in the history books as a freak event.

On Tuesday, that changed, changed utterly. Bush and his Republican army recorded a famous victory, one that may come to be seen as more than a mere election triumph -- rather, a turning point in US life, a realignment.

For 12 hours that fact was obscured by the fate of Ohio, and the desperate Democratic desire to see if that pivotal state might be wrested from Republican hands. By late morning US Senator John Kerry realized it was a vain hope. This was no Florida 2000.

For Bush had done more than rack up the requisite numbers in the electoral college. He had done what he signally failed to do four years ago, win the popular vote -- and not by a sliver, but by a 3.5 million margin.

Bush had also achieved what no one had managed since his father in 1988, winning more than 50 percent of the vote. But, of course, he had outdone his father, becoming a member of that surprisingly small, select club of presidents who have won two full terms.

That alone would ensure that this first decade of the 21st century would become the Bush era, just as the 1980s belonged to Ronald Reagan, and the 1990s to Bill Clinton. But there was more.

The Republicans expanded their presence in the 100-seat Senate from 51 to 55 seats, beating Democrats in almost every close contest and toppling their senate leader. They increased their majority in the House of Representatives, too. Under Bush the Republican party has won clear control of both the legislative and executive branches of the US government -- with a mandate whose legitimacy no one can doubt.

But the Republican revolution will not stop there. A subplot to this week's drama has been playing out at the Supreme Court, where the 80-year old Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, has been incapacitated by thyroid cancer. Few expect him to serve for much longer, giving Bush the chance to appoint a successor. A social conservative, such as White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, is a likely nominee.

Other vacancies on the bench are imminent. Once filled, Bush will have overturned the court's wafer-thin moderate majority. The court could set to work unravelling a 50-year settlement that has asserted the rights of women, black Americans and, more recently, homosexuals. Opposition to affirmative action or abortion rights has, until now, been a minority position in the US' highest court. That could change. And the conservative takeover of all three branches of the US government (executive, legislative and judiciary) would be complete.

So Bush will be no footnote to history: he is instead making it.

Those outside the US, in the chanceries of Europe and beyond, who hoped that this would be a passing phase, like a Florida hurricane that wreaks havoc only to blow over, will instead have to adjust to a different reality.

For four years many hoped that the course charted by Bush -- a muscular go-it-alone view of a world divided between the forces of darkness and those of light -- would prove to be a blip. Come Nov. 2, they wanted to believe, normal service would be resumed. The US would return to the old way of doing business, in concert with allies and with respect for the international system the US itself had done so much to create. The norms of foreign policy pursued by every president from Roosevelt to Clinton, including former president George Bush, would be revived. Kerry promised as much.

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