Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

US Elections


At the beginning of 1940 America was governed by its most popular president ever. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, had won 61% of the popular vote in 1936. There was talk of him standing for an unprecedented third term. His Republican opponents produced a lapel button that was distributed widely. It read: "Washington didn't; Jefferson wouldn't; Lincoln couldn't; Roosevelt shouldn't". It had no effect. FDR was elected again in a landslide, and in 1944 won a fourth term as well. His vice president, Harry Truman, took over a few weeks later when FDR suddenly died. Truman, in turn, was elected in 1948, confounding the pollsters. Democrats held the presidency for 20 years in a row. These were their full tide years. But as the Republicans clawed back influence in the Senate and the House of Representatives, they initiated a constitutional amendment that was finally adopted in 1951: no person can be elected President of the United States more than twice. This is why Bill Clinton isn't president of the US today - which he well might be were it not for Constitutional Amendment 22.

Over the last half century the Democrats have found high office increasingly elusive unless they can produce extraordinarily charismatic figures like John F. Kennedy or Clinton. The demographics have been against them. Blue collar workers who sustained Roosevelt's triumphs have declined as a portion of the population, and white collars who replaced them have never been as enthusiastically Democratic. Moreover, a steady down-sizing in government departments trimmed their numbers, too. The era when the unions dominated political life has gone. Double income families, increased prosperity, better and bigger homes, and more disposable cash have made Americans more conscious that their domestic futures are better ensured by their own efforts rather than anything that central government does for them. Tax cuts resonate with voters, not handouts. Since Democratic President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty", Americans have been sceptical of big-spending promises that produce more problems than they solve. Successful Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were mainstream on economics, and in Clinton's case, his welfare legislation insisted on work before reward. A record-breaking run with the economy helped Clinton too, just as it underpins Helen Clark's government here.

While the domestic tide washed the Republicans' way, foreign policy has been less easy for them. Richard Nixon displayed consummate skill opening dialogue with China. Gerald Ford, his successor, scarcely knew where it was. Ronald Reagan followed his cue cards and applied pressure to the Soviet Union. It worked, but he pursued few initiatives elsewhere. George the First muffed the Gulf War in its final stages; had he kept pursuing Saddam Hussein in 1991 the present imbroglio in Iraq might not have occurred. George the Second listened too eagerly to the elderly hawks surrounding him, and rushed into war in Iraq with no plan for Day Two. Nearly all current difficulties can be traced to the first week of occupation in April 2003 where there were too few troops to compensate for the US failure immediately to recruit Saddam's defence and police forces in support of a new regime.

So dominant has Iraq become within domestic US politics that one might have expected it would topple the Republicans from office in the way that Vietnam ruined the Democrats in 1968. But a fresh factor saved George W. Bush. Leave aside his strategist Karl Rove's astute choice of issues and his energising of the fundamentalists. The attack on American soil on 11 September 2001 introduced a whole new dimension to American presidential politics. Fear of the unknown. The constant threat of mindless, unpredictable attacks on Americans is no more palatable to them than it was to the Australians remembering Bali when they voted recently. Much of the burgeoning religious fundamentalism in the US is an American response to surging Islamic religious bigotry. The churches are giving extra propulsion to the forces that have been promoting the Republicans for half a century. More attacks on America will intensify this modern war of religions. Mind-numbing as the thought might be to friends of the United States beyond its borders, by 2008 there could well be Americans regretting the constitutional bar to a third term for George W. Bush. Like it or not, it's the Republicans who are now at full tide. Sadly, Bush is no Roosevelt. FDR knew how to run a successful war. Karl Rove's extraordinary skills don't extend there. It looks like a turbulent "four more years".