21 October 2004 Edition

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Bush v Kerry - The world is watching

In just under two weeks, America's citizens will go to the polls to vote in what is being called the most important election of recent US history. George W Bush did not have an easy ride in his battle to become President in 2000 (Al Gore, Florida and Jed Bush spring to mind). And his rival in 2004, the Democrat's Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, is no pushover. But while critics of Bush believe Iraq will be his downfall, the latest polls in America still put him in front of his Democrat rival.

Over the next two weeks, An Phoblacht's JOANNE CORCORAN will be looking at the state of play in the run-up to 2 November and examining why this election will be fought right down to the last vote.

"It's all over bar the counting." This was the assertion of one Irish journalist last Saturday, who then went on to predict (his exact words were "you read it here first") a comfortable win for Senator John Kerry in the Presidential election on 2 November. The journalist was basing his argument on the widely accepted fact that John Kerry won all three of the presidential debates that took place this month. And he had obviously read the editorials of some of his American counterparts who, in their hope of a Kerry victory, have been keen to point out that no incumbent president has ever lost all the debates and been returned for another four years.

If he had waited two days to write his article it may have read differently. Because, come Monday 18 October, American polls had once again placed Bush ahead of Kerry, some by as much as eight points.

The moral of the story is that this election, with all the media speculation surrounding it and the cries of "it will be doom if we vote Bush, doom if we don't", has become one of the most hyped and most unpredictable US elections of all time. Journalists, from both sides of the Atlantic, not to mention every other ocean you can name, are calling it one way one week, the other the next. What they all agree on is that this election is significant for the whole world, not to mention that the candidates' verbal battles make for a good read.

What the world needs now

The tragic events of 11 September 2001 and Bush's reaction to them split America right down the middle. One half believe the world can only be safe with Bush at the helm, guiding their country through troubled times and going on the offensive against 'terrorism', rather than waiting for it to come to them.

The other half is critical of the Bush administration's response to the attack on their country. They believe Iraq should never have been a target, that they were duped by their president who had ulterior motives for going to war, among them controlling Iraq's oil reserves, and that they have alienated many of their allies.

Much of the world's media outside the States has jumped on the latter bandwagon. While many broadcast and print outlets refused to condemn the Iraqi war at the beginning, criticism of it began to snowball as the realisation sunk in that toppling a statue of Saddam did not mean the war had ended. Now newspapers across the world are beginning to editorialise that Bush must go. The most important thing to remember here though is that, no matter what The Guardian, the Irish Times, or Die Welt is saying, virtually nobody from those papers' readerships will be voting on 2 November. American citizens will decide this election and they haven't quite bought into the Kerry campaign in the same way the rest of the world has. The debates may be over and Kerry may have won the battles, but he hasn't won the war.

Debate this

So first things first — how could Bush be leading in the polls when Kerry streaked to victory in the debates? Well, the truth of the matter is that the Kerry debates victory wasn't as clear-cut as many European commentators took it to be.

Several American news channels, including CNN and CBS, initially called the debates draws, and it was only after the academic world started announcing Kerry the winner that it became accepted as fact.

Of course, Bush did himself no favours throughout the contests. In the first he was described as slouchy and grumpy looking, frequently glaring at his opponent whenever he touched on a sore point. In the second he made some obvious shows of anger, practically leaping from his seat when John Kerry refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the coalition America now shares with Britain, Australia, Italy and Poland. In the final debate he appeared a sunken man, rarely asserting his points, even when Kerry, shall we say 'exaggerated' the truth (at one point he proclaimed the President had never met the Black National Caucus — Bush met them twice in the White House). He also failed to pick up on Kerry's deliberate mention of Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter Mary — the presidential candidate was later criticised for using Mary's name and sexuality by her mother, who called it a cheap trick.

This is not to mention the wire incident. The President's jacket came under much speculation after the first debate when photographers captured what appeared to be a wire running up the back of it. Critics suggested Bush was being fed answers by his White House team. The President laughed it off as a Liberal conspiracy theory and his tailor was brought in to announce that there was a material glitch in the seam of the jacket and that it was merely a pucker, not an advanced communication device, which the photos showed.

However, despite the faults of the President, Kerry failed to use the three debates to entrench himself in people's minds as the next President. Most critics will tell you that the only outcome of the debates was the reinforcement of both men's appeal to their core supporters.

Bush affirmed his conservative values, projected his consistent leadership in a threatening world and reminded voters of the ordinary likeable side of his personality, which appeals to them. Kerry demonstrated his grasp of foreign and domestic policy, ability to make judgments about complex issues of justice and equality and appeared more human and accessible as a result. Overall, his reputation as a strong finisher has been confirmed. But so far, he has not established the commanding edge among marginal voters and states required to beat Bush. Realistically, it remains the President's election to lose.

It's the economy, stupid

Non-American's who want Kerry to win can nearly all be put into a nicely categorised box — anti-Bush foreign policy. That's not to say that there aren't some who would criticise Bush's conservative opinions and policies, but to be fair, would the world be taking such an enormous interest in the American election if it was being fought purely on domestic issues?

For Americans, however, it is these very issues which lie at the centre of this election. Iraq is of primary concern and will continue to be while American casualties mount up, but for many Americans, even post 9/11, their priorities are jobs, health, education and housing, much like everywhere else in the world. These are the things that will dominate their minds in the polling stations and these are the things that have earned Bush the label of the most conservative President ever and Kerry the label of most liberal Senator ever.

On what's left of the campaign trail, both men are likely to highlight elements of their ambitious domestic agendas. But they are unlikely to dwell on the cost of their own proposals.

Under Bush's proposals, tax cuts account for an overwhelming share of the costs, whereas under Kerry's proposals, new spending, mainly for health care and education, accounts for about 60% of the additional cost.

An analysis of the candidates' proposals by the Concord Coalition, an independent group that advocates deficit reduction, shows that Bush would cut taxes by $1.2 trillion in the coming decade, while Kerry's tax proposals, taken together, would reduce projected revenues by $498 billion.

New spending proposed by Kerry would total $771 billion in the next decade, dwarfing the $82 billion that Bush has proposed.

Bush and Kerry have announced that they both want to reduce the federal budget deficit by half within five years.

Perhaps unfairly, much of the economic focus has been directed at Kerry, who has the advantage of being able to suggest policies in opposition that many say he could not afford if he was elected president.

The Concord group estimates that Kerry's proposal to repeal tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (everyone who earns over $200,000 annually) would raise $278 billion in revenue in ten years, while his proposal to modify the estate tax, now scheduled to be phased out, would generate $8 billion.

However, proposed tax cuts from the Massachusetts Senator would more than offset the projected increase in revenue from raising taxes on wealthy individuals. Those cuts would total $784 billion over ten years: $508 billion to extend "middle class tax cuts'' enacted in recent years, $177 billion of tax credits for health care, $71 billion of tax credits to help college students, $16 billion for energy and environmental initiatives and $12 billion to encourage the hiring of new workers, especially in manufacturing jobs.

To give him his due, Kerry has reduced some proposals, saying the current administration has run up a higher deficit than he expected and his main aim is to cut the budget deficit. To many economists, this is a worthy goal, but voters tend to want lower taxes and higher spending.

But for every policy plan Kerry announces, the Bush campaign comes back with one.

They have denounced Kerry's plans for education, saying that the president has increased education spending more in four years than Bill Clinton did in eight (tables published by the Office of Management and Budget show that spending by the Education Department reached $57 billion last year, up from $36 billion in 2001 and $26 billion in 1992, the last full year before Mr. Clinton took office).

Kerry says there are now less jobs than when Clinton left office and has promised to bring an end to outsourcing of jobs — free trade economists in the Bush camp have called him a protectionist.

Kerry also points to Bush's most expensive item in his platform — at $1 trillion over 10 years — his call to extend tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003. Kerry believes that this is not a positive for his opponent's campaign, as most of the tax cuts will elude the middle classes he frequently refers to.

With all the mud-slinging, the only thing that has remained clear is that neither man can offer full costings for all their proposals. The more this is pointed out, the more both men regress to the one-subject argument on foreign policy and Bush's handling of the Middle East. The result is that American citizens are being deprived of their right to know exactly what these two candidates will do about the issues which affect them on a day-to-day basis.

The Iraq war, it seems, is still being fought on American soil.

Next week: An Phoblacht looks at who is endorsing which candidate, analyses Kerry and Bush's views on the ethical issues which have dogged these elections, such as abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research, examines the legal issues and battles surrounding the elections, and asks the most important question of all- who will be the next President of the United States of America?

  • An outside chance?

Ralph Nader. Most people know the name, but aren't quite sure what relevance it has to this election. That is because this year, the US Presidential race's third candidate has been dwarfed by the two main players, George W Bush and John Kerry.

It was all so different four years ago, when Nader attracted an enthusiastic following as he challenged Al Gore and Bush in the 2000 race. Some 15,000 fans paid $20 a head to pack New York's Madison Square Garden that year to applaud his assault on big business. Nader was on the ballot in 43 states and won 2.7% of the popular vote.

Attitudes changed when Democrats said that his presence on the ballot in Florida cost Gore the election and accused him of being a spoiler. Nader got 97,488 votes in Florida, where Bush was declared the victor with a lead of less than 1,000.

His critics are now furious with his decision to run again in a tight race, saying he could once more help George Bush win. Most of the celebrities who cheered him in Madison Square Garden, including Professor Noam Chomsky, actors Susan Sarandon and Bill Murray and writer Studs Terkel, have deserted to the Kerry camp in a stop-Bush frenzy. Nader has also lost the support of the Green Party, which has stated it couldn't stomach the thought of supporting a campaign that might return to office what they say is the least environment-friendly president in decades.

But Nader does not believe Americans should surrender to a two-man race. He has called Kerry an "opportunist" and has pointed out that the Democrats did not cry foul when Ross Perot damaged George Bush Senior in the 1992 election that Bill Clinton won. The independent candidate also says exit polls showed half of his supporters in Florida would not have voted if he was not on the ballot and a quarter would have supported Bush, leaving the result unaffected. Now he is saying: "If we vote now on the least worse basis, it's as if they put a ring in our nose," (quoted in the New York Times, 15 October).

It is a tragic reversal of fate for one of America's most passionate crusaders against the arrogant abuse of corporate power. Nader, 70, became a full-time consumer activist in Washington four decades ago. His advocacy group, Public Citizen, challenged big business in Washington and attracted legions of idealistic young people, who became known as Nader's Raiders. Since then, he has created or inspired hundreds of consumer organisations. His work led to carmakers in the US having to install seatbelts and airbags. And as his fame grew, he continued to live modestly in a small Washington apartment.

In this election, he has managed to get on the ballot in 34 states and the District of Columbia, and is fighting legal challenges in five more states. Last Wednesday, he learned that in the battleground state of Pennsylvania a court had ruled that he could not appear on the ballot after thousands of signatures on his petition were ruled invalid: they included Mickey Mouse and Fred Flintstone. The legal action was taken by the Democrats, who have challenged his attempts to get on the ballot in practically every state capital.

Realistically, there is no chance of Nader being elected in this election. But his legacy is to leave the most ironic twist — the consumer candidate attracting the approval of big business, who believe he will help keep Kerry out, and the Democratic Party fighting to keep a third candidate from giving people a greater democratic choice.

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