To win the election, just Feel the Pain

Memo to Messrs Murdoch, Black, Dyke, O'Reilly et al: don't waste zillions sending your reporters to New Hampshire so that they can produce dreary reports beginning "The snowflakes started to fall in New Hampshire yesterday as . . . " Stuff like that is not only boring but a waste of time and money - and what New Hampshire voters do in the first presidential primary next 1 February is not nearly so important as the media thinks, in any case.

Besides, your readers or listeners can always discover what's happening by reading the New Statesman. No NS reader will be surprised to learn that last Tuesday's Washington Post reported that four polls now "show McCain gaining ground on Bush" or that the same day's New York Times pronounced that a McCain win in New Hampshire "could threaten the entire Bush juggernaut". It was all reported here first. Nor will you be surprised to discover that the former senator Bill Bradley is making inroads on the presidential chances of Al Gore. Or that Liddy Dole, the only credible woman contender, made an early exit. Or that Pat Buchanan would drop out of the Republicans and join the Reform Party. Yes, NS readers read it all here first.

For Republicans and Democrats, it's in effect already down to a four-horse race between George Dubbya Bush Jr, Senator John McCain, Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Of the four, Dubbya and Gore remain front-runners, but more and more voters are going to be looking to McCain and Bradley as alternatives. Added to all that, we must now expect some knockabout cacophony from Buchanan, who is all but guaranteed to make a few shock-horror headlines in the months to come. ("Rebel presidential contender, Pat Buchanan, plunged US politics into turmoil yesterday as the winter's first heavy snow . . .")

It spoke volumes that, when Bill Clinton flew into Oslo last weekend, the candidate about whom he was most enthusiastic was Dubbya rather than his faithful vice-presidential spaniel, Gore. The reason is clear - of all the candidates, Dubbya is the one who learnt most from Clinton's 1992 victory over his father. Clinton first, then Blair in Britain and finally Schroder in Germany: all learnt that in order to be elected, they must first Feel Our Pain. Whether they were ever going to do anything about that pain was glossed over: it was the magic formula that enabled the middle-class masses to vote for the candidate who appeared to have a social conscience, but who would then keep taxes low for them, throw young offenders into bootcamps and so on.

By affecting an image as an endearingly roguish and basically decent fellow, Dubbya has climbed on to the bandwagon started by his father's vanquisher (what would Freud have to say, I wonder?): by merely mouthing the words "compassionate conservatism", he has managed to appease the consciences of many voters who might otherwise look on him as just another ruthless Southern governor.

I've already catalogued how Dubbya has compassionately executed more prisoners than any other governor; under his governorship, his state (so vast, the whole of the UK would fit nearly three times into it) has also marched from 49th out of 50 for per capita spending to 50th place. A quarter of all children in Texas have no health insurance; Dubbya has compassionately tried to prevent attempts to rescue the most impoverished.

What cannot yet be predicted is whether voters will buy into the Clinton/Blair/ Schroder/Dubbya conscience-salving electoral collusion next year. McCain is positioning himself as the former Vietnam war hero who's angry, dammit - furious, for example, when he sees the spending of "$350 million on carriers the navy doesn't need or want". Bradley, likewise, is exercised by "children in poverty", while Gore is far more concerned about his zappy new colour co-ordinated clothes and his image as the dynamic go-getter advised by none other than Naomi Wolf (will Blair soon be putting Germaine Greer, say, on a secret £10,000-a-month payroll, too?).

Just how comfortably off those middle classes are, I suspect, will prove to be the decisive factor next year. If they stay as economically prosperous as they have been throughout the Clinton era, they can remain complacent and appease their consciences by voting for someone who Feels Pain but will then smile and do nothing about it (Dubbya, Gore); or they can find themselves less well off, be as mad as hell and vote for some goddam guy who's gonna goddam well do something about it (McCain, Bradley), whatever it might prove to be.

And those snowflakes you must now brace yourself to be told about? New Hampshire, though in the north-east, is a self-important small state with many of the characteristics of the south: you're likely to be driving along there and suddenly see in the mirror that you're being followed by middle-aged, long-haired louts riding motorbikes with extended handlebars.

It's home to less than 0.4 per cent of the US population, but puts itself on the map by always winning the race to hold the first primary; as it thus stages the first presidential election, it excites political junkies and gets far more attention than it should.

Because it is such a bumptious little state, New Hampshire invariably sends false signals. It rejected Clinton, who then won the White House; it elected Buchanan, who didn't and never will. What is certain is that those snowflakes will soon be falling there and we'll be hearing all about those chilly, tiny little towns that the media only ever visits - utterly pointlessly - every four years.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people