Donald Coxe

VICIOUS SPORT

The campaign will poison U.S. politics for years

September 20 2004
Donald Coxe

VICIOUS SPORT

The campaign will poison U.S. politics for years

September 20 2004

VICIOUS SPORT

The campaign will poison U.S. politics for years

Donald Coxe

OUR JULY 12 cover package featured Paul Wells’s post-election report, “The inside story of Canada’s nastiest campaign.” Fellow Canadians, rejoice! If that’s the worst the nation’s political process can deliver, be happy Canada’s political campaigns are so polite—and so brief.

As a Canadian who has worked in the U.S. for 17 years, I can attest that the American way of politics as a year-round contact sport can be

tiresome and vicious. The current presidential election began in earnest last October, when Democratic candidates campaigned full-time in Iowa and New Hampshire. The good news: votes will be counted in less than two months. The bad news: the anger this campaign has engendered will poison American politics—and possibly its foreign relations—for years to come. Even worse news: despite all the speeches, ads and squabbles, neither presidential candidate has levelled with the people about the nation’s challenges.

If elections are exercises in democracy, this one is for intellectual couch potatoes. Iraq and Afghanistan are in crisis, the stock market is going nowhere, the economy stopped growing satisfactorily once George W. Bush’s financial steroids wore off, oil is at US$40 a barrel, the health care system is a painfully expensive playground for multi-millionaire malpractice lawyers who seduce juries with junk science (like the charming Democratic vice-presidential nominee, John Edwards), and most voters think the nation is on the wrong track—a collective pessimism that weakens consumer spending.

It’s time for change. Will it come?

Amazingly, Bush now has the lead because of the bounce his successful convention delivered. Yet, he’s had almost

nothing but bad news this year: near-chaos in Iraq, a Taliban comeback in the outback of Afghanistan, prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, soaring fiscal and trade deficits, high-priced gasoline and a weakening economy. Since voters elect presidents to deliver peace and prosperity, how is it that Bush is even competitive?

For the Democrats, John Kerry’s standing outside the United States, compared to Bush’s, is generally much higher. Those nations tra-

DESPITE all the

speeches, squabbles and ads, neither candidate has levelled about the nation’s challenges

ditionally prefer any Democrat to any Republican anyway, and they despise Bush personally the way they despised Richard Nixon. Kerry revels in his support abroad, but struggles to impress Americans. He earlier had a real chance of winning big. His fellow citizens were clearly tiring of Bush in January, when some polls suggested a generic Democrat could beat him. But Kerry turned out to be the generic Democrat unable to attract voters because of who he is, what he has done

or what he believes. His sole basis of support is that he’s just not Bush. His beauty is best perceived at a distance.

Instead of running a Kennedy-style campaign of verve and optimism, Kerry tore loose the scabs covering the nation’s Vietnam wounds. Seeking to use his courageous war performance to counteract Bush’s attraction as a war president, and to remind voters that Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney never fought, Kerry stumbled into reviving old hatreds, dividing the nation even more deeply. His Band of Brothers of Swift Boat servicemen saved his faltering candidacy in the Iowa caucuses, cemented his nomination in subsequent primaries and made his official nomination ceremony a tribute to a war hero ready to be commanderin-chief.

What he should have expected were reprisals from the thousands of Vietnam vets who have since 1971 considered him the liar who accused them of gruesome atrocities in passionate Senate testimony. Returning Vietnam warriors found they were not greeted as heroes, but as murderers of innocent civilians in “Nixon’s War.” Although many others protested war crimes, Kerry had enormous public impact because of his heroism, his patrician background and his debating skill. (His Yale debating coach said Kerry was his best pupil since William F. Buckley Jr.)

It would be absurd if the election were decided over Kerry’s Vietnam record when Bush’s erratic performance as president is an invitation to a challenger offering tough, realistic policies. If Kerry were the thoughtful Democrat many business people hoped for, he’d be proposing reasonable alternatives to Bush’s programs on energy, fiscal policy—the crisis that will soon engulf Medicare and social security—and would be clear about how he’d revive the NATO alliance.

Bush’s energy bill, for one—a grotesque combination of proposed payoffs and subsidies that died in the Senate—was a heavensent opportunity for Kerry to show leadership. Yet, Kerry achieved the seemingly impossible—proposing an equally useless energy program. It bows vaguely toward Kyoto and, like every energy program in the last three decades, places reliance on those as-yet-undiscovered new technologies that will “get us off oil.”

As for nuclear power, the obvious alternative

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to fossil fuels, he not only doesn’t suggest breaking the logjam that has blocked nuclear plant construction for more than two decades, he takes what even his admirers at the New York Times say is a demagogic approach toward opposing the burying of spent nuclear fuel beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada. (Unless a burial plot is found soon, even existing nuclear plants will be in

trouble.) However, Nevada is one of several key battleground election states, and many Nevadans cussedly object to taking other states’ nuke waste.

Kerry shares Bush’s refusal to do the obvious-raise federal gasoline taxes to get market forces working in favour of fuelefficient cars. (Are there still people who don’t understand that if you want to dis-

courage an activity, tax it heavily, and if you want to encourage it, cut its taxes?) Nor has he made any serious proposals about the financial disaster facing Medicare and pensions when babyboomers retire. By putting Edwards on the ticket, Kerry has endorsed the trial lawyers’ biggest political demand— a “patients’ bill of rights” for health insurance and Medicare that includes a virtually unlimited right to sue. Perhaps the biggest reason why health care costs so much more in the United States than in Canada is Americans’ addiction to high-stakes medical litigation.

Kerry won the nomination against the outright protectionism of Howard Dean and Edwards by promising to punish “Benedict Arnold” CEOs who outsource jobs abroad. Although he was vague about his hit list, it would apparently include Hollywood producers who shoot movies in Canada and auto companies that open plants in Ontario. His branding of executives as traitors recalls the era 50 years ago when Joe McCarthy accused Democrats of “Twenty years of treason.” (Kerry has toned down his protectionist rhetoric lately, claiming speechwriters made him do it.)

In the waning days of the Canadian election, polls showed that many voters had “a pox on all your houses” attitude toward the major parties. That’s happening in the U.S., too. The stock market languishes, in part, because of sourness about the political process. Polls of equity investors show they prefer Bush, so if he wins, that might give stocks a brief boost. But what’s most needed, say these investors, is to get beyond Nov. 2 and simply end this stale, flat and unprofitable campaign. fifi

Chicago-based Donald Coxe is Global Portfolio Strategist, BMO Financial Group. dcoxe@macleans.ca