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[Page 19]

The Political Scene in the United States

IN HIS introduction, the moderator argued that the years since the end of the Cold War have disproved the idea that America would retreat back into its shell. On a succession of issues -- the Gulf war, NATO expansion, Kosovo -- America has shown a desire to take part. On the other hand, the notion of a new Pax Americana also plainly does not hold. America has only intervened in coalitions. Foreign policy, he argued, is likely to remain an ad hoc affair, often influenced by domestic concerns, with the main danger being an indifferent America, rather than an isolationist one. This seemed to depress most of the subsequent speakers, who argued that on a variety of issues from free trade to China and Kosovo, American foreign policy seemed to lack leadership. And they looked for ways in which American politicians might be able to sell international issues to their constituents.


The election is very important, most obviously because the prizes on offer include the White House. But the stakes are also high elsewhere. Control of the House of Representatives may switch. And although the Democrats are unlikely to win the Senate, they could narrow the gap considerably. Even the races for the State legislatures are interesting, because of redistricting. In California alone, the Democrats could pick up six seats in the House just by getting the right to draw the map.

It will be a very close race. In the presidential race, the Republican base is 159 (the electoral college votes that Dole won in 1996). The Democrats start with 161 (which you get by adding California to the states Dukakis won in 1988). The election will be decided

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in 12-13 states, including New Jersey and Florida. Congress is also desperately close: the House of Representatives will be decided in around fifty races, the Senate in around thirteen. It will be a race where caution will be the watchword in both parties.

Inevitably, this implies that domestic issues, rather than foreign affairs, will be the main concern. Kosovo had seemed like a big potential negative for the Democrats: polls had been trending downwards on the issue. Now that fear seems to have disappeared. China could become an issue. And there will be protectionist pressures, particularly in the industrial states. The benefits of free trade are diffuse, but the losses are concentrated.


On the face of it politics looks in pretty good shape. There is a small flotilla of presidential candidates, a lot of money is being raised and the media is already devoting a lot of space to the presidential race. If you go back to 1960, Kennedy did not even declare his candidacy until February of that year. This time, with eighteen months to go, the race is already in full swing. And things are even better if you are a Democrat because of the Republican Party's suicidal tendencies.

In fact American politics is in a pretty awful state. Voter turnout in 1998 was the lowest since 1942. Fewer people are linked to parties: only 29% claim to be Democrats, and 22% Republican. The American public is passive. The quality of people seeking political office has also declined.

The reasons for this have a lot to do with the way that politics consumes so much money and time. Twenty years ago, a congressional race cost $73,000; now $500,000 is the minimum. In 1976, a senate race might cost $550,000; now the figure is $3.3 million. Twenty years ago the first thing a candidate did was to look for good field managers. Now you need pollsters and media consultants. Four-fifths of the money goes on media spending -- often on negative campaigns

Depressingly this virus is spreading. American campaigning has cropped up in countries like Israel and South Africa. Yet all the signs are that the standard of debates on international affairs

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within America has declined sharply. Compare the gap between the debate over the Gulf war and the muddle over Kosovo. Will it improve? Only if there is serious campaign-finance reform and the media changes the way it covers politics.


Politics has always been a bizarre business. In 1991, George Bush's re-election was considered a formality. Seventeen months later, he was out of a job, having been comfortably beaten. At the moment few people expect foreign policy to play a strong role next year. They could be wrong.

The last time foreign policy seemed significant was in the 1980 race. But problems like Kosovo, the Middle East and the India-Pakistan squabble are not going to go away. And on the Republican side in particular the expertise of the candidate may be judged on foreign policy. George W. Bush and John McCain look the two strongest candidates.

There will come a moment when each candidate will be asked to define the national interest: to say what America's role in the world should be, and then to say how they will protect that interest. As long as the outside world is difficult and dangerous, it will affect domestic politics. Many Americans are beginning to realise that their livelihoods rely on events far away. Without markets for its grain, it is not just Nebraska's farmers that suffer but also its tax revenues -- and by extension its schools and public services.


Most of the participants seemed to agree with the first two panellists, rather than the third: they thought that foreign policy would play a relatively small role in the upcoming campaign. Instead the focus would be on domestic issues, such as education, healthcare, welfare and so on. The third panellist still defended his position. Politics, he said, is about relevance, and globalisation is relevant. He also thought that trade could be one of the areas that divides Gore from Bush/McCain. And he got some indirect support from another

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American participant, who warned that politics could change quickly -- and front runners had a habit of running into difficulty. Ed Muskie had "wept" his way out of the race; Michael pukakis had "tanked" away his lead. When Bill Clinton came to Bilderberg in 1991, few thought they were meeting the next president.

Several participants seemed particularly depressed about the relative unpopularity of free trade in American politics. One Canadian participant pointed to the failure to get fast track, and the lack of American leadership at the WTO. An American thought that something was missing from the debate. With low employment and rising wages, surely it should be easy to prove the argument for free trade. She thought that trade had got mixed up in other debates -- about labour rights for instance. A panellist sympathised: politicians had failed to show Americans where their long-term interests lay. Exports now support two out five manufacturing jobs and a third of those in agriculture. "We have allowed the demagogues to fill the vacuum", he complained, though he also stressed that politicians should do more to look after those who lost out because of free trade.

Although Russia did briefly enter the discussion (one panellist argued that history would judge America poorly in its treatment of its former adversary), the two places deemed most likely to impact American foreign policy were China and Kosovo. The former will be thrown into sharp relief by two coming debates in Congress -- one on China's MFN status, the other on its WTO membership. One panellist was particularly annoyed by the way that the Chinese government had allowed people to stone the American embassy (even worse than the spying in his book). But he still thought that China was a huge economic and political power -- a place that should be engaged rather than shunned. Another American was even more positive, pointing out that China had behaved pretty well over issues such as the transfer of power in Hong Kong and the Asian crisis.

Whatever the result of the war in Kosovo, argued one panellist, the struggle still represented something of a failure for Amer-

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ican foreign policy. It had never been properly explained to the American people. America had been given a second chance with Kosovo. It should not waste it. Several participants brought up the question of reconstruction. There would be no great appetite to rebuild Serbia as long as Milosevic was in power, argued one panellist. Another pointed to the recent difficulty in raising money for the earthquake victims in the United States' backyard.

One Swiss participant suggested democratising foreign policy, by for instance having a parliamentary consultative committee for the WTO. This appealed to one of the panellists, though he pointed out that it is extremely difficult just to get people in Congress to meet their Mexican equivalents -- let alone their peers further overseas. All the panellists thought that Business should be a lot clearer about its priorities. It should stop supporting candidates who attached things like opposition to abortion to trade treaties.

A repeated theme was the need for some sort of leadership -- over China, over Kosovo, over trade. America, argued one panel-list, has isolationist tendencies and it tends to revert to them, whenever there is no leadership. This not only applies to the presidency, but also to Congress. For instance, unions account for only around 8% of the workforce (if you exclude public employees). It is possible to be a free trading Democrat senator: to make the case to workers about the dangers of protectionism. The unions' political influence would also wain with campaign finance reform.

The discussion ended about domestic politics. One Democrat argued that the Republican revolution is as good as finished. The argument that "we'll burn the village to save it" no longer carries weight: people are not as concerned about big government. Another countered that all three of the main Republican candidates -- McCain, Dole and Bush -- were moderates. The winner of the next election, argued the first panellist, would be the most moderate. The main issue would be values. People are happy economically but they are not happy socially.