Bush’s win and some lessons for NI…

Some readers took our occasional but consistent analysis that Bush was on course for victory in last Tuesday’s election as tacit support for the president’s campaign. Nothing could be further from the truth – by which I don’t mean to imply that we were secretly backing the Democrats! We strive for a rough journalism of detachment.Much of the reaction to Bush’s election has at times verged on contained hysteria. However the campaign had some good news for all sides, not least the high voter turnout of just under 60% (it was 55% in 1992 49.0% in 1996 to 51.0% in 2000).

Much of the analysis has concentrated on the apparent polarisation of US politics. That’s what we are supposed to have witnessed in 2000. The truth is much more prosaic.

The real success of Bush has been his ability to build coalitions of interest that have seen his party burrow, slowly but significantly, into some of the Democrat’s key support base. From early in the year, Don King was at work trying to convince black voters that with two senior representatives in Bush’s cabinet, their interests now lay with the Republicans, not the Democrats. His election night sound bite was something like, “the Republicans are out democrating the Democrats”.

There’s some evidence too that Bush’s hard line on stem cell research, gay marriage and abortion is firming up a lead amongst the most statistically significant of the socially minded Christian groupings – the Catholic vote. At one time this was a unified and largely disaffected group. And it mostly voted Democrat.

Bush himself is born again and a Methodist. He has perhaps confounded a lot of his critics, because his actions don’t quite conform to their image of him. His conservativism is obvious over the issues mentioned above. But two of his big policy intiatives, Education, which has seen a 59% increase in the funding available to public schools and in the case of AIDS his targetted funding of patients receiving antiretroviral treatment in the developing world, are at odds with his opponents’ image of him as a rabid fundamentalist.

The truth is that Bush is one of a new generation of pragmatist politicians, who understand that their capacity to take and retain power in a democracy depends on an ability to build and maintain coalitions of interest. As David Aaronovitch points out in his customarily accute analysis yesterday, his appeal extends way beyond the bible belt and the so-called ‘flyover states’:

Twenty-two per cent placed ‘moral values’ as the number one voting issue, of whom four- fifths voted for Bush, making around 17 per cent of those voting. Eighty-three per cent of voters did not fall into this camp at all.

Furthermore, the percentage of voters describing themselves as evangelical was the same as in 2000. The proportions in favour or against abortion were no different – 55 per cent are broadly in favour of abortion with 42 per cent opposed. A majority supported either gay marriage (which we do not have here in Britain, or in most countries in Europe) or of gay civil unions. In fact, among these latter, there was a 5 per cent lead for Bush. (Equally unexpectedly, those most scared by terrorism actually voted for Kerry.)

Closer to home in The Blanket, Fred A Wilcox talks of the detachment of the left from the people whose interests they wish to represent:

Orwell marveled at the left’s extraordinary disconnect between its own rhetoric and daily lives of working people. It seems to me that in the aftermath of the 2004 election, the progressive would do well to stand down from its self righteous soap box and spend more time listening to people who do not attend ivy league colleges, may not read The Nation, do like to drink and go bowling and watch Fox News.

So what has any of this got to do with Northern Ireland?

What Bush (and to an extent, Clinton before him) was able to do was to extend the appeal of his party far enough into the heartland of his opponent to make all their best efforts at defending it useless.

In our own bicameral sideshow, the DUP have resoluted focused on moving out of their working class heartlands to take the middle class protestant vote. Sinn Fein has similarly beaten the SDLP, even if middle class Catholic votes may be fractionally slower in coming their way.

Both successful parties could not have succeeded without attracting the very moderate voters their opponents believed would never move to their ‘unworthy’ opponents. They have done this largely by professionalising their campaigns and, above all else, applying themselves to understanding the needs and wishes of the people they want to vote for them and articulating their own ‘branded’ solutions.

It’s a million miles from the old approach politics which revolved only around one or two keystone issues – in our case the border, in the wider world the division between the interests of the indvidual vs that of the collective.

If we are ever to witness a turning back of the tide in Northern Ireland the minor partners in the nationalist and unionist houses will have to address their opponent’s new appeal to the moderate voter, and offer them a more compellling alternative, rather than continue fight the simpler ‘wartime’ battles of yore!