January 22, 2001


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Ashwin Mahesh

A personal weakness

The last eight years have been notable for an unabashed celebration of the intellectual left in the United States, even if the President himself did retain the political acumen to water down the extreme positions.

Under the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton, America didn't quite reinvent herself in the image of the European state, but that objective gained an unstated acceptance. Universal medicine, state support for education, the vigilance of civil liberties groups, gun control, and reproductive choice all received a boost from the Democratic government. Even a few unions were satisfied with the degree to which Clinton accommodated their concerns in an economy rapidly integrating with the rest of the world, with its traditionally lower environmental and labor standards.

The Republicans have maintained throughout this reign that Clinton was an opinion-poll president, lacking the personal conviction to lead, and merely espousing causes that the American public already embraced. Perhaps. If that's true, they will do well not to steer social and economic policy too far away from current trends, lest they should lose their tenuous hold on power. Itching to affirm the stamp of their stated values on America, the Grand Old Party risks the backlash of a society whose standards aren't necessarily as unequivocal. The early charges of racism and bigotry that some of Mr Bush's nominees have incurred are but the early signs of this coming conflict.

The conflicts on the issues themselves are merely the visible exterior of the political conflict. The thrust of the Democratic assault on the government will stem from the primary charge that Mr Bush is incompetent. The months of campaigning just past were witness to this systematically erected image of the incoming president, that he quite simply lacks the intellectual acumen, knowledge and wisdom needed to be effective in a time of intricate maneuvering in both domestic and international politics. George Bush's relatively poor English, his unwillingness to delve into mathematical detail on his policies, and the gaffes resulting from them have only served to cement this view. The road to overhauling this first impression will be long and arduous.

This personal weakness, merely perceived or real, will remain the focal point of much opposition to the government, both within the United States and abroad. On the domestic front, the incoming President risks the appearance of being unable to bring to heel his partisan lieutenants in the Cabinet, and having his claim to uniting Americans be disproved time and again. The various secretaries are likely to pursue conservative positions with some vigor, as may be their right as victors in the election. But this victory was inadequately earned, as many see it, and that will undermine such a right. At every instance of new policy thrusts that are conservative, an opposition smarting from a "stolen" election, as well as the media, are bound to raise the bogeys of racism, bigotry, and greed, and the very process of countering these charges will render Bush's desire for unity moot.

Certainly, as the President, he has the power to define the extent to which his Cabinet may pursue their goals, but that would put him at odds with the majority of Republican voters who strongly backed the conservative platform. In an election won by the left (Gore and Nader together outpolled Bush by over two million votes), Bush's rise to the Presidency has relied largely on the support of strong religious and economic conservatives; they will remain central to governing. For the President, steering them towards his own agenda, and away from their absolute positions is fraught with danger.

Such government would not be new to America, it would merely be unfamiliar to Republicans. When Bill Clinton steered the Democratic party away from absolute positions on the left and towards more centrist ones espoused by the people at large, he held two aces up his sleeve. He used the stature of his office to speak directly with the American people above the heads of partisan Democrats, and more importantly, he conveyed his messages with a political shrewdness and personal skill that has been the hallmark of his controversial term. The question for Bush will be if he is similarly endowed. The answers so far established, fairly or not, during the election itself do not permit an affirmative reply.

America will be redefined during the Bush years by this weakness more in matters of foreign policy than on the domestic front. Within the borders, many rights and responsibilities do not rest with the federal government anyway, and the sparring over socio-economic positions produces change only slowly. Even then, lacking the cooperation of a divided legislature, the Republicans will find it necessary to dilute their partisan views. The international arena, however, is free of such restriction; there the President's authority is unquestioned.

But the exercise of unrestrained power draws a delicate foe, namely the President himself. Mr Bush and his Secretary of State, the much-liked Colin Powell, bring a combination of notions that may be inherently threatening to global American ascendancy.

First, the Powell Doctrine requires a higher standard for American involvement in global affairs than previous governments, and this will necessarily lead to a perceptibly more isolationist stance. But aloofness extracts a price, namely that the US will not be able to influence some issues. Foreign policy is about engaging the world, not remaining distant from it. At the same time, tackling intricate problems at the international level requires greater direct involvement from the President; when only the knights do battle, the political advantage to the emperor is uncertain. This means that notwithstanding any engagements Gen Powell takes up, he must at least appear to be acting at George Bush's instance, and not on his own or at the behest of any alternate coteries.

And it is here that Mr Bush will confront a noticeable challenge, one that unequivocally rests on the notion of his personal intellectual weakness. In international media, the distinction between a President who is unwilling to engage the rest of the world, and one who is unable to do so, is in the pen of the opinion-maker, not in fact. If George Bush chooses not to insert himself into discussions of global peace, or arguments over climate change and international trade issues, he will soon be portrayed as lacking the necessary skill to do so meaningfully. The pretenders to the global thrones, in Russia, China, and Europe, have long been suffocated by Mr Clinton's personal charisma, and by their inability to articulate their views publicly with acclaim equal to his. Surely they anticipate a more level playing ground with glee.

Mr Bush's challenge lies in convincing the American people and the world that his choices reflect strong opinions, not merely the inability to argue their opposites. He deserves a fair opportunity to prove this, but the question is already at hand.

Ashwin Mahesh

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