17 October, 2004: A Man, A Plan

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So, then, that US Presidential election, eh? Many people have become very exercised about this, usually because they are afraid that George W. Bush will win another term and use it to blow up the world, or that John Kerry will win and turn America over to THE TERRORISTS, or something like that. Controversy breeds commentary, and if you read newspapers or web logs it's virtually impossible to get away from the subject.

Almost all of this commentary misses, so far as I can see, the fundamental point about the US Presidential election, which is that -- barring more-effective-than-expected fraud by either side -- its outcome is essentially random. There are about as many Republicans as there are Democrats, and the difference between the number of each party is almost certainly smaller than the margin of error of a US election. What with Republicans removing Democrats from electoral rolls (and, I assume, vice versa), the antics of Diebold and the nonsense of the electoral college, we shouldn't expect the two- or three-point opinion poll leads being reported for one or other candidate to translate causally into a win by their party.

(Strictly, of course, corruption such as the removal of supporters of a particular party from the electoral roll is a source of systematic bias and so is not well described by a `margin of error'; but if you assume that both the parties are at it -- I haven't seen any evidence that they aren't -- then it's sensible to see it in that way.)

Numerous people have said that, whatever the failures of the system, it's vitally important that Bush be defeated because doing so will teach him a lesson (in the way that several years of expensively-bought education apparently did not). If, the theory runs, Bush, having set about the civil rights of Americans with a fire-axe, sent troops thousands of miles to invade a country for no reason and apparently with no idea what they should do once they had done so, handed control of energy policy to his buddies in the oil industry, etc., etc., is not re-elected, future presidential candidates will learn the lesson that when the bell rings, a dish of food is put out for them.

Sorry, that came out all wrong. What I mean is, that they will learn the lessons (a) `don't be a mad right-wing fuck', and (b) `watch who you invade'.

It is nice that people are so convinced of the effectiveness of adult education, but I'm afraid I don't buy this. That idiot Karl Rove (a Bush `strategist', the one who thought that a US invasion of Iraq would be met with parades and flowers) apparently drew from the 2000 US presidential election the lesson that Dubya didn't come across as enough of a crazed right-wing fucknut to score a decisive victory! Apparently, the theory runs, had Bush's qualities as an evangelical Christian fruitloop been more visible, a large contingent of committed Christians who in fact stayed home on election day would have taken time out from polishing their guns (or whatever it is that these people do all day) to vote for Bush. For a Republican, winning the election is really about getting more Republicans out to vote for you, not trying to convince Democrats that you're not going to make a frightful cock-up of everything. The lesson, for a Republican, of a Kerry victory will probably be that a more extreme platform is called for.

A long time ago, Peter Cook wrote that,

American politics is very simple. They have the Republican Party, which is basically like our Conservative Party, and the Democratic Party, which is basically like our Conservative Party.

Of course, this is now a little out of date, since unlike the Conservative Party both the Republicans and Democrats are still in a position to win elections. But the basic thesis is sound. Many people who do not think that Republicans would draw a useful lesson from a Kerry win believe that Kerry should be elected because he would be a better president than George W. Bush.

Here, as so often in life, it is important to keep one's expectations realistic. Certainly I would be surprised and astonished if Kerry managed to be a worse president than Dubya -- though anything is possible. Charley Reese, described as `a conservative columnist', writes of Kerry,

it would be fun to have a president who plays hockey, windsurfs, ride motorcycles, plays the guitar, writes poetry and speaks French. It would be good to have a man in the White House who has killed people face to face. Killing people has a sobering effect on a man and dispels all illusions about war.

which seems a reasonable endorsement until you realise that, for all his credentials, Kerry is opposed to abortion and gay marriage; and -- worse -- he voted for the war against Iraq -- apparently on the basis that he believed all that shit about `weapons of mass destruction', which even Bush (we assume) did not -- and now says that he still would have voted for it had he known that the whole intelligence effort was a farce and the casus belli a lie! He is not a man free of illusions about this war, at least.

It is true that Kerry has `a plan' for how to unpick the godawful cock-up the Americans have made in Iraq, but on closer inspection his plan turns out to be the same as George W. Bush's (step 1: try to con somebody else into doing America's job for it; step 2: ?; step 3: PROFIT!). In fact, if you look at his web site (or listen to the debates held between the two candidates) you'll discover that Kerry, like Baldrick, has plans for more-or-less everything; sadly there is no Edmund Blackadder to ensure that he doesn't try to implement them.

(Dubya, of course, has a plan too, but it mainly consists in shovelling money out of the US Treasury and into the pockets of his friends. Surprisingly enough, for a man described as having so little business acumen that he was unable to find oil in Texas, he appears to have pulled this off quite successfully.)

Elsewhere Oliver Kamm, at the end of a long piece about how splendid Dubya is and explaining in his usual rhetorical style how important it is that Bush be re-elected to carry on the War On Things Oliver Kamm Doesn't Like or whatever it is this week, approvingly draws our attention to a piece by Charles Krauthammer, a journalist, who writes of John Edwards's statements on the possibility that stem-cell research will make possible novel treatments for debilitating conditions,

In my 25 years in Washington, I have never seen a more loathsome display of demagoguery. Hope is good. False hope is bad. Deliberately raising for personal gain false hope in the catastrophically afflicted is despicable.

Quite so. To this all I can say is that at least increasing the funding for and freedom of action of biologists working on stem-cells is something that a US president actually can do, assuming that the dinosaurs in Congress don't stop him. But to raise false hope is a dreadful thing to do; on the same basis I have no doubt that we won't be seeing from the Republican party any promises of peace or democracy in the Middle East, a victory in the `war on terror', or any of that other stuff. (As an aside, I had a brief look for an on-line bookmaker who would quote odds for `Osama bin Laden captured or killed before November 2nd', and to my astonishment couldn't find one. Any suggestions?)

This presidential election has been the occasion of some better-than usual slogans. To two of the best,

there should, I think, be added a perennial favourite:

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Copyright (c) 2004 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.