An Englishwoman in Washington

'Bush has tried to run the country as though the Clinton years did not exist: big mistake.'

Helen Searls

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Topics Politics

A quiet, low-profile Republican senator – James Jeffords from Vermont – made noisy history in late May by crossing the aisle of the Senate.

Politicians, media pundits and lobbyists were immediately thrown into turmoil. By resigning the Republican whip and becoming an independent, Jeffords lost the Republicans’ control of the Senate. At the beginning of June, with all the formalities completed, the Democrats claimed control of the upper chamber.

Now, it seems that a lot of politicians and journalists are scrambling to rewrite the script of the Bush administration.

When Bush completed his one-hundredth day in office at the start of May, everybody who was anybody in Washington claimed that the Right was in an unassailable position. With the Presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives in Republican control, it seemed to many that nothing could stop President Bush and his conservative agenda.

Media commentators confidently informed us that the president was assembling one of the most conservative teams that Washington had ever witnessed; and for some it was only a matter of time before abortion was outlawed, welfare was abandoned, and the Ten Commandments were posted in every schoolhouse.

But Senator Jim Jeffords’ defection shows that the talk of a right-wing takeover in Washington was premature. Maybe President Bush does have a secret conservative agenda up his sleeve; maybe he does want to turn Alaska into one big oil field, and stuff the Supreme Court full of anti-abortion zealots. But it is one thing to wish such things and quite another to try to implement such a conservative agenda in modern America.

For those who have been paying attention in recent months, Jim Jeffords’ resignation should not have been such a bolt from the blue. The Republican Party leadership has tried to depict Jeffords as a bitter and unpredictable maverick, motivated by personal ambition (certainly, his defection has secured him a plum job as chair of the Senate environmental committee). But there is more to this than personal ego. Apparently, up to six more Republican senators are thought to be close to jumping ship.

All this indicates a genuine tension within the Republican Party that last year’s election victories could only hide for so long.

Republicans won the November 2000 elections in highly unusual circimstances. There was never a popular groundswell of support for George W Bush – his main asset was the fact that he was not, and had nothing to do with, Bill Clinton. Even with that major political advantage, he won the Presidency while losing the popular vote and gaining no real mandate for his incoherent programme.

Republicans elsewhere in the US government fared even worse, losing seats in both the Senate and the White House. The Republicans held on to power with wafer-thin majorities, and their dominance of Washington did not represent a truly conservative shift in the outlook of the nation.

Since arriving in office, Bush and his team have tried to run the country as though the Clinton years did not exist. This is a big mistake. Clinton the man may fallen out of favour; but Clinton’s policies still command widespread public support. Championing big business, tax cuts and building up a missile defence policy might fire up a core of right-wing Republican voters, but such ideas no longer have wider appeal. In fact, at the last election many Republican voters expressed strong ‘Clintonite’ concerns about education, regulating big business, gun control and environmental protection.

To date, Bush and his ‘highly commended’ team of conservative advisers seem relatively insensitive to the difficulties facing the modern Republican Party. A top White House aide admitted that they were unaware that there was a problem with Jeffords until the day before he resigned – even though the story had been in the press the week before.

With aides like this, Bush’s ability to hold things together will be pretty limited. It seems his problems have only just begun.

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Topics Politics

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