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How Dubya Got To Be President
By Paul Street
On January 20, George W. Bush began his reign as perhaps one of the meanest and certainly one of the dumbest presidents in the history of the United States. He becomes the chief executive of the worlds most powerful nation despite a mediocre record in a series of academic institutions to which he gained admission through inherited class privilege and family name; despite a business record that would have brought him economic ruin but for family/class connections and related corporate welfare infusions; despite an unimpressive and mean-spirited record in one of the nations weakest governorships. He occupies the oval office despite his transparent discomfort with fundamentals of policy and the English language, a chronically sneering visage, a belatedly publicized DUI conviction, and a political record contrary to principles and objectives supported by a majority of Americans. Those principles and objectives include campaign finance reform, environmental protection, tax equity, quality public schools, racial justice, and the maintenance of Social Security as a viable public program.
How did Dubya pull it off? Well, he didnt. Bush owes his presence in the Oval Office to a fortuitous (for him) combination of factors. The first and most obvious factor was big money. In the United States, where the escalating cost of paid political advertising prices out candidates who cant raise fortunes and prevailing legal doctrine (Buckley v. Valeo, 1976) holds that campaign spending limits violate free speech rights, it is only fitting that the candidates with the most cash should win. This happened in 9 out 10 races for federal office in 2000 and the White House was no exception. Bushs record-setting campaign contributions ($191,617,196) and expenditures ($182,052,265) gave him a significant money edge over Gore (who raised $132,624,544).
Significant parts of Bushs money advantage derived from major capitalist sectors. From the automobile industry, for example, Bush garnered nearly $2 million, out raising Gore by a factor of 10 to 1. Insurance companies ($1, 568,184 to Bush) gave Bush nearly $5 for every $1 they gave to Gore. The contribution differences were pronounced in other industries: gambling (3 to 1); commercial banks (5 to 1); computer equipment and services (2 to 1); petroleum (15 to 1); pharma- ceuticals (more than 4 to 1); real estate (nearly 3 to 1); securities and investment (nearly 3 to 1); and tobacco (nearly 10 to 1). Follow the money (the best place to start is the website of the Center for Responsive Politics: www.crp.org) as you seek to decode Bush policy actions in coming years.
Bush also owes his victory to the related alienation of masses of Americans from the political process. Reflecting the understandable calculation that their votes do not count in a money-dominated winner-take-all electoral process, huge numbers of Americans see no reason to exercise their right to the ballot. Even with a highly competitive race, half of the eligible population chose not to vote for anyone for president. Two percent chose to protest corporate domination of the process by voting for a left-populist candidate who had no chance of winning under the existing political system. Significantly, non-participation was greatest among lower income people, who are more likely to punch Democratic when they vote. Participation is greatest among the affluent, who generally prefer the more explicitly pro-wealthy Republicans.
While the Nader vote was small (well below the 5 percent required to get the Green Party matching federal funds for the 2004 race), it was, in the absence of ranked- preference and instant-run-off methodswhereby Gore would have received most Nader votes in a re-do triggered by the failure of either candidate to win as clear majoritylarge enough to spoil Gores chances for a victory in Florida.
Bush also owes his office to the electoral college, which permits a candidate to lose the countrys overall popular vote and still win the actual race. In the name of preventing less populous states from being unjustly ruled by states with larger concentrations, the EC violates the basic democratic principle of one person, one vote and provides political over-representation to disproportionately white, rural, and conservative areas of the country.
Bush also owes his success to the Democratic Partys long run to the dead center of the ever-narrowing American political spectrum. The party continues to fail to re-establish a sufficiently strong, energized base in the working-class and minority communities that have historically done its heaviest electoral lifting. This failure reflects the Democrats own reliance on big money contributors and lobbyists to meet the ever-rising cost of campaigns.
Bush benefitted from the incompetence of the Gore campaign. Even with the Democratic Partys hideous flaws and the Republicans money edge, the Gore campaign should have won going away, with enough room for Nader to have gotten his 5 percent. Gore and his handlers blew it by failing to identify themselves more strongly with the 1990s economic expansion; by failing to stay on message with the Nader influenced left-populist theme that won them new public support during and after the Democratic Convention; by failing to utilize the unmatched campaign services of Clinton; by failing to pin Bush with his pro-NRA gun record; and by failing to link Bush and his handlers and supporters to the Republican impeachment fiasco.
Bush can thank that fiasco for its role in making him a serious presidential contender in the first place. The publics negative reaction to the Republican Congress- ional impeachment campaign meant that the Republican Party had to go outside Washington, DC for a presidential candidate. Bush family name recognition and the distinctly non-telegenic nature of both John Engler and Tommy Thompson, who possessed the strongest policy (welfare and tax-cutting) records of Republican governors, gave the big money nod to Dubya. Ruling-class concerns about the overgrown frat boys qualifications were allayed, no doubt, by the promise that senior statespeople and war criminals like Dick Cheney and Daddy Bush will be making the real decisions in a Dubya White House.
Also among the factors that elected Bush is the media. Contrary to Republicans persistent claims about the medias liberal bias, the establishment print and electronic media exhibited what Molly Ivins calls a stupefying lack of skepticism in their reporting about Bush. They ignored evidence that the president-elect is a narrow and vapid man who owes everything he has ever achieved to accidents of birth, name, and class. At the same time, the medias refusal to provide free political advertising is part of the equation that inflates campaign costs in the U.S. to the point where wealthy donors install their favored candidates in office.
Bush owes his position also to Republican control of key offices in the administrative and judicial determination of the contested election results. From Floridas secretary of state to its legislature, its governors office, and the transparently partisan U.S. Supreme Court, where a deciding vote was cast on Bushs behalf by a Chief Justice who once harassed Black and Hispanic voters as a poll-watcher in Arizona, Bush was the beneficiary of Americas distinctly partisan machinery for counting votes. He benefitted from numerous voting irregularities, the most disturbing of which included the disenfranchisement of Black voters through inadequate voting machines, excessive identification checks, and even police roadblocks in minority districts in Florida. African Americans have expressed particular antipathy for George W. Bush, who has a virulent record of incarcerating and executing African Americans in Texas and is generally hostile to affirmative action, anti-poverty programs, and other components of the Black political agenda.
Last but not least, Dubya owes his new job to the lifelong political disenfranchisement of felons and ex-felons in Floridathe offender and ex-offender population is disproportionately Black.
Gore and his handlers have nothing to say about this last issue. Their silence is appropriate given Gores unpleasant record in advancing the racially biased war on drugs and related get tough criminal justice policies that now place two million people behind bars, including one million blacks.
This is a sad and sorry conjuncture of circumstances, though not without certain positive possibilities. It has focused Americans on vital issues of voting rights and voting procedure, creating space for productive discussion and progressive policy advocacy to actualize the one-person one vote ideal. It has energized the African American and civil rights community and others in ways that promise future dividends for those who believe in that ideal. It has created a president of unusually dubious legitimacy from the very beginning of his Administrationsomething that might enhance the broader questioning of authority. It should shed some renewed light on the inadequacy of the centrist Gore and Democratic Leadership Council approach.
Finally, it provides some unusually sharp clarification of the relationship between money, class, merit, and power in the United States. Make no mistake: a Gore presidency would be fundamentally captive to the powerful [that is, corporate] interests that Gore claimed (during and after his partys convention) to want to fight in the name of Americas working people.
The installation into the White House of an obviously unqualified child of privilege by the business class and the Supreme Court will leave Americans less confused about who really owns American democracy at the turn of the millennium than they would have been under Gore. It stands as a glaring refutation of the standard ideological notion that America is an equal-opportunity meritocracy in which people rise or fall in accordance with their individual skills, knowledge, effort, and worth to society. While a Bush presidency is not without its very real dangers at home and abroad, there is something to be said at this point for that sort of clarification. Z
Paul Street is a writer and social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois. His articles have appeared in Z Magazine, Monthly Review, In These Times, and Dissent.