Boris Johnson, at the Republican convention, says that Bush’s conservative credentials are not always convincing but his optimism is unfailingly inspiring
Come off it, I am thinking to myself. The last time I saw Tuesday night’s Republican keynote speaker was only a week ago. I was lying comatose on a motel bed in North Carolina, flipping from channel to channel, and he arrived, starkers, in a Plexiglass bubble from space. As I recall, he then changed his batteries by carving a hole in his thorax, destroyed much of downtown Los Angeles with a runaway crane and narrowly failed to avert the annihilation of the earth.
It is hard to take a politician seriously when his undraped form has been likened to a condom stuffed with walnuts, and when most of his roles involve him telling rival robots that they are ‘Terminaded’. But the Americans take him seriously, increasingly so.
By some fluke I am in the ‘friends and family’ section of the amphitheatre, only a few feet away from Dick Cheney, and can monitor the star’s reception closely. Every time Arnie mentions some key state such as Ohio or Pennsylvania the crowd seethes around that state’s name-standard and Mexican-waves its approval, and there is one man behind me literally screaming ‘Arnold!’, as if the former bodybuilder were treading on his corns. Indeed, the more Arnold talks, the more fervent become my own nods of assent.
In a simple and direct way the reformed android is explaining the greatness of America, and what it means to him. ‘There is no country more generous, more compassionate and more welcoming than the USA,’ he says. This is a man who couldn’t even speak English until his twenties, whose Austrian accent is so thick that audiences laugh at it around the world; and yet he is governor of California, for pete’s sake. It is astonishing. It is marvellous, and it deserves to be greeted with ululations of rapture.
Now Arnie is explaining not only why he is a patriot but why he is a Republican. He had lately arrived in the US when he saw a 1968 presidential debate between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. Arnie was appalled, he tells us, by the socialist poltroonery of Humphrey, so he got a friend to translate Nixon.
‘He vos talking about free ennerprise and it sounded like a breath of fresh ear.’ (Cheers.)
‘It vos about cutting taxes and getting ze state off your back.’ (Yeehah, etc.)
‘I said, vot pardy is he from and zey said he is a Republikan and I said zen I am a Republikan!!’ (Yeehah Granmaw, cheers, screams, etc.)
Yo, I am thinking. Way to go, Arnold.
‘If you believe zat your family knows better how to spend your money zan ze government does, zen you are a Republikan!’
Fair enough, mein freund, I think. Then Arnie goes for the killer pay-off, the message that is blapped between the eyes of this audience with all the monotony of a special-effects explosion. There is only one man who can deliver those values for the nation and that is GEORGE W. BUSH (ovation, ovulation, etc.), says Arnold, and a chant begins:
Four more years!
Four more years!
He starts to bellow like a branded bullock, the great square ruminant jaw working with the effort, and across the hills and dales of Madison Square Garden the countless Republican herd lows its answer: Four more years!
In the cacophony two unsettled questions buzz in my head. Will Bush win these years? And then there is the prior question. Does he deserve to win? It may seem unwise to forecast the outcome of an election when there are 60 days to go and even pollsters, such as my old friend Frank I. Luntz, say that the result will be a matter of 1 per cent either way; and it may seem especially perverse for me both to think that he will win, and — on the whole — to want him to win, when the charge sheet against Bush is so long and so devastating.
First there are the little pinpricks of unease. There is something unsettling about a man who never touches alcohol, goes to bed at 9 p.m., holds Bible-study meetings every morning and who is unable to eat a pretzel without nearly dying. Then there is his command of English. At one point Bush was on the giant screen before us, explaining that his wife Laura believed children should be encouraged to read. ‘She wants America to be the most literate nation for every child,’ he said, the gears of his brain audibly crunching.
One can see what he means, but it’s just maddening that when asked to form a simple declarative sentence on child literacy the leader of the free world is less articulate than my seven-year-old. Then there are the things that are really worrying. There were the steel tariffs, which destroyed his free-trade credentials, and the agricultural subsidies grosser even than those applied in Europe. There is the Cecil B. De Mille expansion of the state, exemplified by the prescription drug benefit that — whatever its merits — is going to cost $534 billion over the next 10 years.
There is Iraq. It is disgusting that no one in the US government has resigned over Abu Ghraib. Only this week it was revealed that Lt Gen. Sanchez, the senior military commander in Iraq, sent a memo enjoining his interrogators to exploit the Arab fear of dogs. Now we know why those rednecks used Alsatians to terrify naked and hooded Iraqis, thereby undermining the case so many of us relied on: that this was a war to end torture in Iraqi jails.
They did it because they were told to. Shouldn’t someone pay the price for that? It is an eternal reproach to Bush, as Commander-in-Chief, that he invaded Iraq with such inchoate plans for governing the country and such a muttonheadedly inaccurate anticipation of the popular reaction. Why the hell can’t the US government — why can’t our government — give us any idea of how many Iraqi civilians have died in this enterprise?
And yet as British Conservatives have found, it is hard both to support the war and to quibble about the execution. For instance, one may support the broad aims of the war and call — as this magazine did last week — for the impeachment of Blair on the grounds that he was wilfully misleading about the weapons of mass destruction. That position is intellectually coherent; but it must be confessed that it lacks political simplicity. And if Bush has an overriding virtue as a politician, it is that he at least appears to keep things taxi-driver simple.
You either suck or blow. You’re for the war, or you’re against it. That is where he has the edge over Kerry; and there are other tricks that might be instructive for us British Conservatives and which, if he wins, will explain his victory.
Bush is good at uplift, and optimism. He talks about inclusion and hope in a way that seems genuinely persuasive to minorities, especially Hispanics. Several times on Tuesday night his team treated us to a good compassionate conservative phrase that sums up black educational failures: ‘the soft bigotry of low expectation’, they said, and the Bushites applauded knowingly and compassionately.
Most telling and thought-provoking of all, he eschews altogether any claim to be a ‘small government’ conservative. He may cut taxes, but he certainly doesn’t cut government, in the way that British Tories feel they must pledge to cut government. On the contrary, he has presided over a Gordon Brown-style explosion in the public sector. This is government of the people, by the people, for the people — of, by, for, with lots and lots of the people.
In so far as he is at all right-wing, it is that this spending may be said to be accompanied by reforms that lay stress on individual responsibility and initiative, such as choice in schools. Here he is bolder than British Tories, still nervous that the punters don’t really want
And then there are the socially conservative moves he has made that are probably not open to British Tories, and yet which are increasingly popular in America. The audience just lurved it when one speaker said, ‘An embryo is biologically human. It deserves moral respect.’ That received one of the most heartfelt whoops of the night, as did any mention of marriage, whose joys and pains Bush is determined to confine to heterosexuals.
All this seems very tough to some of us British, with our mushy, secular approach. Many of us probably think that if the gays want to get married — indeed if they want to have babies by some horrible form of monotreme parturition — then that is a matter for them. How, we ask, can you have a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal when the President institutes a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage? Is that really what America wants?
It’s what the Christians want. Just drive through rural Virginia, as we did the other day. Darn it, I said, we’re lost: just 20 minutes ago we had passed those three crosses, arranged in Gethsemane formation on the hillside. Then we realised that this was a different set of crosses, and that in fact the crosses were everywhere.
Now you or I might think a cross was a pretty odd thing to erect in your paddock, but that’s what they do here. They have rows of churches, not dilapidated or in the process of being converted into yuppie flats, but full of God-fearing folk bawling their hearts out. Bush knows that five million Christians failed to turn out in 2000: so he uses abortion and stem-cell research and gay marriage to ginger them up and get them to the polls — rather as Blair continually offers his disillusioned Left the prospect of a ban on hunting.
The last reason why Bush is likely to win is of course that this is a country at war, and Kerry has made a cretinous error of judgment in evoking his record on Vietnam. Every hour there are Swift boat veterans on CNN, reminding us of what Kerry said about the Indochinese disaster and those who fought in it. The effect is to elide Kerry’s opposition to Vietnam with his opposition to Iraq, and to turn him into the once and future whinger, the guy who doesn’t support our boys. With 144,000 Americans risking their lives in Iraq, that is not ideal political positioning.
As Frank Luntz points out, it is the flip-flopping over the war, the supporting it and yet not supporting it, that is damaging to the challenger. ‘Credibility is more important than ideology. It’s more important than principles. He keeps changing his views too often, and we respect people who stick to their principles.’
That is why the war is now the number one issue for Bush’s tactician, Karl Rove. That is why Arnie closed his remarks with an anecdote about a wounded soldier he met in Iraq. According to Schwarzenegger, this chap was in a very bad way, full of holes, leg gone, etc.
‘He said he vos going to ket a new leg and zen he vos going to ket some therapy, and zen he vos going to go out again and fight with his buddies …And you know what he said to me …he said, “Arnie, I’LL BE BACK!”’ (Widespread epilepsy, Holy Trinity Brompton-style convulsions, followed by rhythmic chanting of USA, USA, USA.)
There are — who knows — perhaps five or ten years in which America’s supremacy will be unchallenged, and in which she can try in one way or another to promulgate her values; and that will not always be a bad thing. ‘If you work hard and you play by the rules, then this country is truly open to you. You can achieve anything,’ said Arnold. That is true of America in a way that it isn’t quite true of Britain. Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, might have been British — he was born in the West Indies — but he once said that he could never have risen as far in the UK as he did in the US.
That is harsh, but maybe fair, and it reflects great credit on America. In the words of the statesman Schwarzenegger, ‘America is still the lamp lighting the world…. It is a great idea that inspires the world.’ (Cheers.)
In the words of America’s first Republican president, it is the last, best hope on earth. Kerry’s trouble is that he doesn’t seem to see it that way. We don’t have much of a choice in this election: between a man who inspires not much confidence and a man who inspires fractionally less. But at a time when so many people are full of an irrational dislike of America, I’d rather have a president who is not just optimistic about what America can accomplish but who also believes unashamedly in America’s essential goodness.