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The Fire That's Smouldering Under Bush
Published on Monday, April 11, 2005 by the Guardian (UK)
The Fire That's Smouldering Under Bush
The Republicans are in trouble without an anointed successor
by Peter Preston

The most pulsating polls of the moment have nothing to do with the Tories closing the gap or falling further behind - according to which Sunday paper you're reading. Indeed, their findings have nothing directly to do with Britain 2005 at all. (We'll do indirectly in a moment.)

These are the polls that measure a re-elected George Bush's popularity, and thus the "dividend" he intended to spend on "being Bush". Strange news: there is no dividend. And George, at this point of the second term, is the least popular president of the US since the second world war.

Let's (from Gallup's March ratings) put figures on that claim. Harry Truman in March 1949 stood at 57% approval. Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 had 65%, Lyndon Johnson in 1965 a full 69%. Richard Nixon (1973) retained 57%. In more recent times, Ronald Reagan (1985) held at 56% and Bill Clinton (1997) at 59%. Last month's Bush score was 45%. This month it has crawled up a point or two, but still runs flat bottom of the pack.

How can this possibly be? Well, issues coagulate. Only one American in three is happy about the state of the economy. Petrol prices are taking a terrible toll - and connecting with the continuing toll in Iraq. A US majority (52%) now regrets going to war. Bush's showpiece social-security plan has opened and closed like Michael Frayn's Democracy on Broadway.

But one thing seeps into another. The Terri Schiavo tragedy - born-again Republicans on Capitol Hill rushing round to tell hard-working doctors and Florida judges what to do - didn't play well. And, whether by osmosis or accident, dominant House figures like Tom DeLay, the majority leader, are coming up slimy as investigative reporters get to work. There's a sense of grim, debilitating business as usual.

Where's the momentum of last November and of a clear victory that laid doubts about 2000's narrow squeak to rest? There is no momentum, because - not so deep down - there is no future for this administration. America's newspapers, week by week now, record those big-and-small-name Republicans hiring extra aides, preparing policy positions, jetting away to eat rubber chicken in New Hampshire or Iowa. Whither Rudy Giuliani? Which way John McCain? Whatever happened to brother Jeb?

Democrats, in defeat and returning hope, can hit the trail again without raising too much dust: John Edwards and John Kerry are wending their ways separately this time, Hillary Clinton pursues ambition along a dedicated path. But Republicans don't know which way to go.

Will there be a Bush inheritance come 2008, a fat, happy slice of America that likes big government, big deficits and rightwing tub-thumping? Or will the Republicans split open wide as they ponder the micro-management of ordinary people's lives, poor Terri Schiavo's lingering legacy?

The crucial point - the point that reaches right back to Eisenhower - is that every previous modern second-term president has had his succession in order as he settled down to four more years. The vice-president was there to be anointed. The flickering flame had a designated carrier.

Only George W lacks that sense of continuity. There are occasional, slightly bizarre tales about Dick Cheney getting ready to run, but no wonder cures for a chronic heart condition to give them credibility. After Bush, for the moment, there is only a huge question mark, and a vacuum that must be filled by a party making up its mind in the open and in office, the various challengers competing dissonantly to offer something different.

Some commentators, of course, are keen on term limits. But these always limit what presidents - even with a clear successor named - can achieve during that last quarter of their time in power. Without that succession in place, as we see, the rot sets in far earlier.

It doesn't give the opposition instant clout. The Democrats are still in the doldrums. But it divides and enervates the party of government, sets it arguing and manoeuvring and concentrating on a future that may never happen. It is one damned row after another.

In short, George Bush, the alleged master of the world, has failed to get his front parlours and waiting rooms organised. And already that failure begins to drag him down. Get your succession policy wrong in a chattering world of personality-charged politics and nothing goes right. That's the fire smouldering under Bush. It is the blaze beginning to consume France as Jacques Chirac falters. It is also the fact behind the smoke of the past few days in Britain.

Tony Blair - much impressed by what his chum José María Aznar seemed to have achieved in Spain - thought he could set a limit on his own term. But Aznar had his succession in order and his party under strict control - he still lost. Blair's only visible strategy seemed to be trying to make sure that his obvious successor got shafted somewhere along the road to 2009.

Well, we know now that this didn't work. The chorus of the polls and commentators hails the triumph of the indispensable Gordon, the humiliation of a suddenly peripheral Tony.

The debate between the pair, in the nature of things, seems to be centred on policy, on privatisations, public spending et al: but the reality is cruder and starker than that. Blair is paying for his folly of doubt last year - the debate in his own head about carrying on or not. His wobble ended when he gave himself four more years, but those years are not his to bestow.

It's a crisp conversation over cocktails when the G8 comes to London this summer. What's the giddy limit, George? Search me, prime minister: I'm the last one to know.

© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.


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