A seismic shift in America

US voters no longer think it unpatriotic to question the wisdom of war on Iraq. Even senior Republic

The car horns were honking with contagious bad temper and police helicopters were circling overhead. So, the BBC man wanted to know, did the demonstrators paralysing Washington herald the start of a new anti-war movement? Had Americans, perhaps, begun to question the wisdom of war in Iraq? I now wish he had asked me those questions 48 hours later because my answers would have been very different. The demonstrators causing the chaos that day, I replied, were from that peculiar, nomadic band of middle-class "anarchists" who tried to disrupt the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - not typical US college kids, and not really representative of anyone at all.

But on 29 September, two days after that exchange on BBC Radio, there really was an anti-war march here that attracted typical college kids, families and grandmothers; and I detected the first signs of a crack in the "either you're with us or you're with the terrorists" solidarity that has united America with superglue absoluteness since President Bush made that proclamation on 20 September last year. Suddenly, most Americans no longer consider it unpatriotic to question war on Iraq. Has Bush - or, more accurately, those who form his views for him - made a personally disastrous miscalculation in trying to connect the war against terrorism with a US war on Iraq? He is now unequivocal on that point, too: he says that if the United Nations fails to deliver what he wants, "the United States will lead a coalition" against Saddam Hussein nevertheless.

With this opening of a crack, I believe, Bush's can-do-no-wrong halo in American eyes has started to slip. His sky-high approval rating of 88 per cent in October last year slipped to 65 per cent on 12 September this year, and is continuing to slide. Senator Tom Daschle, 54, leader of the Senate Democratic majority and a politic man with studious good manners, genuinely lost his cool on the Senate floor over Bush's maladroit political exploitation of the war against terror. When Daschle heard Bush tell a Republican fundraising rally that Democratic senators were "not interested in the security of the American people", he cried, "Outrageous. Outrageous," and demanded an apology from the president. Daschle's fury was all the more heated because he himself is pro-war and has spent much energy trying to persuade Democratic senators to support a congressional motion in favour of war against Iraq.

But Bush believes he is untouchable these days, and may live to regret his insouciance. He spends much of his time flitting from city to city on Air Force One, at taxpayers' expense, promoting the Republicans at multimillion-dollar fundraisers as the party to vote for on 5 November if you're against terrorism. Vice- President Dick Cheney has told supporters in one state that if they support the Republican candidate in the midterm elections, they will be helping the war against terror. The Democrats, meanwhile, got hold of a briefing paper for Republican candidates written by Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, instructing them to "focus on the war". Democrats have long felt pent-up rage at the politicisation of post-11 September events, and Daschle's emotional outburst was a watershed for those with doubts about Bush and/or war against Iraq.

It came in the same week as two anti-war speeches from Al Gore. Gore is still very interested in taking on George Bush again in 2004, and his speeches were all the more remarkable because, as a Democratic senator, he voted for war against Saddam Hussein in 1990. There was also an impassioned speech from that 70-year-old trouper Ted Kennedy: "War should be a last resort, not the first response," he said. The Democratic establishment, personified by Daschle, dares not risk taking it any further for now and will (if they haven't already done so by the time this comes out) help to pass a congressional motion supporting Bush on Iraq, but I believe some subtle emotional floodgates have been opened.

You can see this in the small print of public opinion polls. Two-thirds of Americans now say it is patriotic to question the wisdom of war against Iraq; only 15 per cent say it is unpatriotic to do so. More Democratic voters are now against war with Iraq than for it. Although Bush would easily win against Gore if the presidential election were held this November, 56 per cent of Americans now want to see a Democratic rather than a Republican Congress. Currently, the Democrats have a majority of only one in the Senate, and in the November elections will need to pick up just six seats to take control of the House, too. Americans like their president and Congress to be controlled by different parties - checks and balances and so forth - and this would normally be no surprise. But given the political climate until very recently, it is something of a revelation.

If it were not for the 11 September atrocities and the proposed war against Iraq, indeed, the Republicans and Bush would be in deeper trouble than is usual for the president's party at midterm elections. Rove was right, politically if not morally, when he told Republican candidates (for 36 governorships as well as for control of the House and Senate) to concentrate on the war so that voters' minds would be less attuned to everyday life here in 2002. Fifty-three per cent of Americans think the nation is "off track": jobless totals are rising, and the stock markets are plunging virtually every day; the corporate scandals, like those of Enron and Tyco, are meanwhile doing the Republicans only harm. The Congress-controlled General Accounting Office is suing Dick Cheney for papers on his secret energy task force that met and made recommendations when the new administration took office. All of this would be politically deadly for the Republicans had it not been for 11 September and its aftermath.

The new sense of a willingness to question Bush is such that three Democratic congressmen have been willing to travel to Baghdad and broadcast back to the US via CNN and other satellite news channels. Representative Jim McDermott, in his seventh term representing Seattle (and, like all House members and a third of the Senate, facing the voters on 5 November), said the UN weapons inspectors would be allowed to do their job in Iraq, adding for good measure: "I think the [US] president would mislead the American people." Only in very recent weeks - once the Bush administration started to pound the war drums - has such a comment by any congressman been conceivable, let alone broadcastable.

Even senior Republicans, in the politest way possible, are questioning the Bush camp's direction. In order to get the bipartisan congressional motion supporting war passed before the UN Security Council votes on a new resolution in New York, the Republican senators Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar personally lobbied Bush last Monday to get him to agree to work multilaterally. "The allies want to have a say, and should have a say, in how we initiate this effort," said Hagel afterwards: words that would not long ago have seemed downright un-American in the climate of the past year.

I do not want to exaggerate what is happening here: probably as many as 80 per cent of the Democrats will vote for the pro-war motion. In the elections now just a month ahead, only eight Senate and 40 House seats are considered to be truly up for grabs: US politicians acquire better tenure than their British counterparts. And Bush is as determined as ever to get the "guy that tried to kill my dad", as he told a Republican fundraiser in Houston (referring to the 1993 assassination attempt on Bush Sr when he was in Kuwait). That was the gun-totin', gun-smokin' Texas Bush Jr speaking off the cuff, an increasingly hazardous thing for him to do; he has now mastered the set speeches written by others and displayed for him on the autocue, but when he speaks spontaneously, he is liable to overturn his own administration's policy, or needlessly rankle the likes of Daschle.

But rankled Daschle was, severely: and now Bush is beginning to lose his halo as a result of his sense of entitlement to universal respect and support in the light of 11 September. His 34-page "Bush doctrine", in the words of one academic, seeks to make him and the US the world's "sheriff, judge, jury and executioner" all at once - no questions asked, at home or abroad. The Republicans, however, are still so devoid of self-doubt that the Republican National Committee e-mailed the text of Bush's criticism of the Senate majority to two million supporters after Daschle's heartfelt repudiation.

If and when the first bombs hit Baghdad, Americans will - more or less - unite behind their president. They always do in wars, at least initially. But Tom Daschle's cathartic outburst legitimised irritation with St George, and those college kids, families and grandmothers showed the very beginnings of a grass-roots opposition movement. The days of the simplisme of the Bush administration are more numbered than they yet realise.

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