January 23, 2004

LRM on Iowa

Lord Rees-Mogg thinks a Kerry vs. Bush general election will hinge on the economy...and that whoever wins will have to lower spending and raise taxes to deal with the twin deficits. Today, he gives his take on the U.S. political scene. Presidential Looks by William Rees-Mogg Every columnist is entitled to a moment of joy when he gets something right. I had this experience of self-satisfaction on the day of the Iowa caucuses. Writing from about 4,000 miles away, in my column for the London Times, I had correctly forecast that the two Senators, John Kerry and John Edwards, would do well, that the Congressman, Richard Gephardt, and the Governor, Howard Dean, would do badly, and that the Democrats were now looking for a candidate to beat President Bush, not for a candidate who would merely express their frustrations. In fact, my family have been following American politics for at least a hundred and fifty years, since my mother’s grandparents arrived at Ellis Island from Ireland. When she was six months old, my mother was held up to be kissed by President Glover Cleveland in the election of 1892; she later sold war bonds on the same platform as Teddy Roosevelt, and voted for his cousin Franklin as Vice President in the unsuccessful Democrat ticket of 1920. That was the first election in which American women had the vote. I have myself been visiting the United States for more than fifty years, and I have friends and cousins spread across the Continent, including a couple who live in Ames, Iowa. Four thousand miles is a shorter distance than one might think. I believe that Howard Dean’s disaster has a lesson for all the other candidates both for the nomination and for the election itself. Howard Dean fought an angry campaign, and anger is an ugly emotion. It may arouse enthusiasm in partisans, but it puts off the more dispassionate independent voter. For the Democrats, anger was last year’s emotion. Dean had been very successful in representing the frustrations that active Democrats felt in 2003, but once they reached the early weeks of 2004, the Democrats had a different agenda. They wanted to win. Most of the historic precedents suggest that a Democrat victory is impossible. The U.S. economy is still expanding, if somewhat more slowly than in the second half of last year. George W. Bush is the President, with all the authority and prestige of his office. He has raised far larger sums of campaign money than are conceivable for any Democrat. Iowa showed that the war in Iraq is no longer the central issue – only 13 per cent of Iowa voters put Iraq ahead of domestic issues, such as health care and the economy. Yet, Iraq has been a victory and the majority of the nation supports the President’s decisions. If President Bush does win in November, we shall all be saying that it was always inevitable. But it is not. Presidents do not always have a second term – three of the last five re-election campaigns have been a failure. President Bush’s own father was a one term President. Yet most elections are decided by the economy and by economic expectation even more than by the current state of the economy Many economic forecasters would share the view that 2004 is the year of prosperity, but that 2005 is likely to be a year when the bills will have to be paid. Whoever wins the Presidential election will have to address the problems of the budget deficit, the trade deficit and possibly of a return to inflation in some sectors of the economy. A prudent President of any party will not be cutting taxes in 2005; he will be trying to restore the balance sheet of the United States to something more like health. This is a difficult argument for the Democrats to make. In the words of the Noel Coward song: “There are bad times just around the corner.” How can one run a Presidential campaign by promising balanced Budgets, that is higher taxes and lower spending. That is why the Democrats need a candidate who looks and talks like a traditional President. There have been Presidents, starting with George Washington and including Ike Eisenhower, who have been long on warnings and short on promises. George W. Bush is such a President when dealing with international threats, but not when it comes to taxes. In John Kerry, the Democrats have a potential candidate who looks like a President. Perhaps he could just succeed in making the warnings about the economy in 2005 weigh against the optimism that is still widely felt in 2004. I still think the odds favour President Bush; he may walk it. But a Kerry campaign would raise some really interesting economic issues.


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