America - Through an electoral fog

The next four years - Bush campaigns on his fitness to command the war on terror, not on policies. B

The most baffling news item I have read in a long time came from the recent Labour party conference. "Blair was greeted by delegates with chants of 'Four more years'," claimed the mystifying report. I am still wondering why. Had all Blair's supporters simply made a mistake, believing that a British parliamentary term was four years rather than five? Were they making a smart calculation: that prime ministers do not usually stay for the full five years, so they would be realistic and ask only for four? Or had they seen telly footage of George W Bush supporters repeatedly chanting "Four more years" at his rallies, and failed to realise that this was not a universal political chant, but was because Republicans wanted Bush to win a second four-year term in the White House?

I suspect that the survival of Tony Blair is now so deeply entwined with Bush that Blair's supporters can no longer distinguish between the two - or, perhaps, they merely think that anything American is, by definition, chic and therefore worth emulating. I also read a few days ago that Blair has been telling parliament that he "will not apologise for removing Saddam Hussein". Again, perhaps I missed something: did Blair and Britain have some significant role in the removal of Saddam? And why, I wondered, did Blair repeat not only Bush's justification for the Iraq invasion, but also use Bush's exact words?

Well, you have to think of something to exercise your mind when you are watching Bush at one of his ticket-only rallies. He was at it again in New Jersey last Monday, shouting out what has become the most predictable line of his campaign: "I will never relent in defending our country, whatever it takes." Inevitably, loud applause follows. The crowd chimes in with chants of "Four more years!" - and Bush rewards them by saying: "In a new term as your president, we will finish the work we have started."

If you believe the polls, the prospect of those four more years of Bush is certainly looking more likely. Most of the polls, even after Bush imploded in the debates, have always put him slightly ahead. The CNN/Gallup poll published on 18 October had Bush ahead by eight points. The Washington Post poll out the following day had Bush ahead by five. The Fox News poll got the same result, but predicted an eventual Bush victory by seven points. Just when you are resigning yourself to one result, though, the outlook suddenly shifts. By Tuesday evening, the NBC poll was showing Bush and Kerry dead even on 48 per cent.

I find commentators tend to forget, however, that the elector- ate in presidential elections can't easily be seen as one cohesive group. There will in effect be 50 separate elections on 2 November, because each state appoints its members of the electoral college on the basis of its popular vote - on a winner-takes-all basis.

Indeed, in the states themselves, the results are interesting. In the all-important state of Florida (27 electoral college votes), the latest poll shows Bush three points ahead of Kerry. But look at the two next most critical states - Ohio (20) and Pennsylvania (21) - and you find Kerry slightly ahead, in Pennsylvania by just one point. It has also become a rule in US presidential elections that when undecided voters finally go to the polls, they usually cast their vote for the challenger rather than the incumbent.

There are other complications. Pollsters here do their polling by phone, but they have not yet caught up with the cellphone revolution - so swathes of the electorate who no longer use a landline, particularly in the crucial 18-30 group, are now ignored.

Kerry is busy peppering the electorate with earnest recitations of everything he would do in office - "I have a plan" was his mantra in the debates. But if Bush wins four more years, we know very little of what he would do. There are no Bush manifestos, only endless repetitions of phrases such as: "As long as I'm commander-in-chief, America will not retreat in the face of terrorists" and "My opponent is not prepared and [sic] equipped to be the commander-in-chief" (both said in St Petersburg last Tuesday).

It is therefore left to our imagination to decide what four more years of Bush would be like. I have pointed out here before just how much of a sense of entitlement that the boy prince feels to the presidency. He does not feel the need to discover the facts about anything, he once told Senator Joe Biden, because he relies on his "instinct". He believes he must always be right, because God has put him in the White House. Bush is thus putty in the hands of his aides; if Karl Rove tells him that a particular course is "the principled thing to do", he will choose it. (I am not making this up. It comes from the recollections of Paul O'Neill, the former Treasury secretary and Bush appointee, who now looks back in wonderment at his time in the Bush administration.)

Some Bush plans, however, have emerged through the election fog. In a secret lunch with major Republican donors last month, according to the New York Times, Bush said: "I'm going to come out strong after my swearing-in - with fundamental tax reform, tort reform, privatising of social security." He would push nuclear energy and drilling in Alaska, he said. If Osama Bin Laden overthrows the Saudis, he apparently went on, "then we're in trouble. Because they have a weapon. They have the oil."

This, I think, gives us an idea about the policies of an unrestrained Bush during four more years. I am not convinced that the faces in his administration would change as much as Washington gossip has it, either. Colin Powell is desperate to resign, but he is a loyal old soldier who would stay if asked. Donald Rumsfeld, I am told, would like to stay around and does not want history to see him as a dud: what person would choose to retire from Washington life with critics saying that you are the architect of a disastrous war, the Abu Ghraib perversions and all? Dr Rice, as she likes to call herself, is the apple of Bush's eye and would also stay on if asked. But Bush would be able to appoint as many as four new US Supreme Court judges in four more years; of the nine members, John Paul Stevens (84), William Rehnquist (80), Sandra Day O'Connor (74) and Ruth Ginsburg (71) are soon likely to depart the bench in one way or another. Bush would then have the opportunity to stamp his vision on how the Supreme Court would shape American social mores; abortion, affirmative action and the role of religion in government are just three of the areas on which the Supreme Court will soon be deliberating.

These prospects confirm why the election that America will be holding in a few days' time is one of the most crucial in its history.

Commentators like to say that kind of thing to drum up interest, but I have no doubts that it is true. Four more years of George W Bush would mean four years of a US president who does not bother to ascertain facts because he depends on his instincts; who does not like to be questioned by anyone; who believes that he has been divinely appointed; and who thinks that his decisions are those of God.

We have one consolation, though: Tony Blair believes Bush is "one of the most intelligent men he has ever met", according to none other than Rupert Murdoch's close ally, Irwin Stelzer. So that's all right, then: with two such men poised to run our countries for four more years, where could we possibly go wrong?

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 25 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, America - God, gays and guns