The 2012 US election is Bush-Kerry in reverse

Like the Democrats in 2004, the Republicans have over-estimated their instinctive appeal to voters.

So here's the situation. The sitting US president is an incredibly divisive figure. The challenger is pushing a single big policy issue, in which he believes he's at an unassailable advantage. And the opposition are so fired up with loathing for the president that they've convinced themselves they can nominate a gaffe-prone plank of wood from Massachusetts and still walk home to a win.

If all this is starting to feel eerily familiar to you, it might be because we've been here before. Back then, the parties were the other way around, of course, and the killer-issue-that-wasn't was defence policy, not the economy. But all the same, some aspects of this election cycle are starting to feel a lot like 2004 all over again.

Back then, when our biggest economic problem was how to pay for the Iraq War, the Democrats hated Bush. Hated him. And that hatred was shared by vast swathes of the world, so much so that most of British left spent the autumn of 2004 repeatedly clicking refresh on various US polling websites. "Kerry's gaining!" we'd tell each other, ignoring the fact he’d been trailing since the conventions, convincing ourselves that, okay, he’s behind now, but he has to win because, well, look at the other guy. Obviously they couldn't re-elect George W. Bush. Obviously.

What we hadn't counted on was that much of the Democratic Party was feeling much the same way. They were so convinced of their own righteousness that they'd chosen a candidate who was just, well, there. John Kerry wasn't bad exactly; there just seemed to be little reason to vote for him beyond "not being George W. Bush".

This, it transpired, wasn't enough. Even Kerry's killer argument – that he'd served in Vietnam, while Bush was passed out under a tractor or something, and was thus far better suited to being president at a time of national emergency – ended up being used against him. Republican sympathisers who claimed to have served with him attacked his war record every three seconds for about six months, and 'swiftboating' ended up joining Watergate and McCarthyism in the US political lexicon.

Compare that to the present. The Republicans are so consumed with loathing of Obama that they've lost sight of the fact it's not shared by everybody else. All the moderates think they're frothing at the mouth. The Dems have turned Romney's business credentials against him, by making it an argument about private equity ethics, rather than the state of the economy. And, like Kerry, he's utterly unable to connect with the voters. Plus there's the plank of wood from Massachusetts thing.

Elections don't follow neat patterns, of course, and there's still nearly two months to go. Anything could happen, and when we’re watching President Romney sworn in next January this might start feeling a lot more like 1980, or some other election, or like nothing that’s ever happened before.

But to me, right now, it feels very 2004. The opposition have over-estimated their instinctive appeal to the voters – and underestimated the size of the job ahead.

In 2004, a divisive president triumphed over a wooden opposition candidate. Will history repeat itself? Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.