31 January, 2009

How George W Bush Really Brought Democracy

Throughout the eight years of the Bush Administration, their standard line to deflect criticism was that it would be "up to history," to judge them. It's a tactic that never worked for me at school.
"I know things look bad now, Miss Q, but it will be up to history to judge whether I passed this maths test."
Twenty years later, my grade on that test has not improved. But I always thought it was telling that the Bush administration never even bothered to try and defend some of its actions, instead choosing to just hand-ball it all to "history," and hope that they will be remembered more like Truman and less like Nixon (who history has only become moderately kinder to recently, having been able to compare him to Bush).

But now that it's been over a week since the end of Bush's presidency, now that his time in office has officially been consigned to history, are we allowed to say he sucked yet?

One thing the Bushies insist they are responsible for, is bringing democracy to certain parts of the world. That's an assertion I happen to agree with, and with that in mind, I present the first re-post of something previously posted elsewhere. And I promise that this is just about the nicest thing I have to say about him.

How George W Bush Really Brought Democracy.

Let me say from the outset, that there is no sarcasm in the title of this comment whatsoever. It occurred to me while reading Al Gore's speech to the Democratic convention that George Bush is correct to think that he will be remembered as a bringer of democracy. Just not for the reason he thinks.

Here's some of what Gore said:

Eight years ago, some said there was not much difference between the nominees of the two major parties and it didn’t really matter who became President.
Our nation was enjoying peace and prosperity. Some assumed we would continue both no matter the outcome. But here we all are in 2008, and I doubt anyone would argue now that election didn't matter.
Take it from me, if it had ended differently, we would not be bogged down in Iraq, we would have pursued Bin Laden until we captured him.

A few things have to be said first. Al Gore has made it clear he has a taste for sour grapes, never missing a chance to say, “I told you so!” And his assertion that he would have captured bin Laden has no more credibility than Bush's vow to “smoke him out,” or McCain's assurance that he knows how to find him. [Update: McCain insisted that he would not reveal his plan until after the election, nor would he broadcast it to the enemy. With the election over, I hope that he has now told Barack Obama what he knows] Gore would have been better to say that he wouldn't have ignored the terrorist threats that the Clinton administration warned of, the way the Bush administration did. But he couldn't state that categorically either.

But Gore's main point is well taken. With such obvious differences between the two men now, it's easy to forget that people on all sides of politics regarded the 2000 election as a Tweedledum/Tweedledee choice. Some people referred to them as Gush and Bore. We were wrong.

It reminded me of the video clip for Testify by Rage Against the Machine, which shows Bush and Gore morphing into one another, and highlights the similarities between what the two then candidates were saying. The video was directed by Michael Moore, who supported Ralph Nader in 2000 and seems to have spent the following eight years overcompensating for his misjudgement and having realised too late that there is such a thing as the lesser of two evils when it comes to the major parties.

Moore shouldn't be so hard on himself. He grossly overestimates his relevance to any election. What he should really feel ashamed of is his part in fostering the notion that there's no difference between voting Republican or Democrat. Voter turnout in 2000 was just 51.3%

By 2004, voter turnout had increased to 56.7%, the highest since 1968 but still a pretty shameful effort. Bush supporters make much of the fact that Bush received more votes in that election than any other candidate in US history. What they neglect to point out is who got the second greatest number of votes ever; John Kerry. Two things explain these numbers, population growth and the relatively high voter turnout. Don't be fooled into thinking there was any ringing endorsement of George W Bush. Notwithstanding allegations of electoral fraud and irregularities (which have never been satisfactorily explained), Bush won both 2000 and 2004 by the skin of his teeth.

Things have changed since 2004 and the “political capital” Bush boasted of in early 2005 was squandered within six months. Since then, we have seen the war in Iraq become a quagmire, al Qaeda regrouping in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the dimwitted non-response to Hurricane Katrina and corruption scandal after corruption scandal. Bush's current approval rating sits at less than 30%. If the leader of a middle eastern or South American country had similar numbers, it would prompt the west to begin talking about regime change.

The interesting thing about all of that politically, is that rather than make people disillusioned in the political process, it has instead caused more and more people to embrace it. Barack Obama has one of the most cashed-up campaigns that anyone remembers and it's largely due to small donations by private individuals. Thousands and thousands of them. This is not a trend you would expect to see from a nation of people apathetic to the process.

After Michelle Obama was jumped on by the right wing for saying this was the first time she was proud of her country, John McCain graciously offered her a lifeline by saying he never really loved his country until he was deprived of her company. It would seem that a lot of Americans now feel that way about the democratic process. They had forgotten how to love democracy until the Bush administration began to deprive them of it, in the form of signing statements, recess appointments, creative readings of the constitution, removal of habeas corpus and illegal politicisation of the justice department. Along the way, they received little, if any hindrance from a cowed and ineffectual opposition party. Some more conspiratorial thinkers might suggest that the Democrats deliberately let the administration do as it pleased to show the public how bad things could be when Republicans are allowed to do whatever they want, but this theory should be dismissed. To quote Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes Minister, that would be to mistake lethargy for strategy.

For this reason, it's easy to see why the majority of support went to the candidate who was least tarnished by bending over for the administration at a time when it was politically expedient to do so. Whether Obama would have really voted against the war, had he been in Congress at the time, is not something we can know any more than we can know that Al Gore would have found bin Laden by now. But the point is that Obama didn't vote for the war and therefore has the moral authority to speak out against it in a way that his fellow candidates do not. And he does so in a way that attracts tens of thousands of people. To a political speech! Go figure!

This then, will be George Bush's real legacy and the best thing he has ever done for his country. His talk of bringing freedom and democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq is highly dubious, but he has given his own country a newfound hunger for it by giving people a whiff of what it might be like to live without it. Of course, like just about everything Bush has done, it's all to do with the law of unintended consequences and not by any kind of design. Previously, many Americans regarded elections as a necessary but unwelcome distraction from their daily lives. Today, they are seizing the opportunity to take part. On polling day, Americans should thank George Bush for reminding them that elections are important and that it does matter who you vote for.

Originally posted at Strawberry Fields, 29/8/2008

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