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 world’s 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 nation’s 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 didn’t. 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
can’t 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. Bush’s 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 Bush’s 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
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 methods—whereby Gore
would have received most Nader votes in a re-do triggered by the failure
of either candidate to win as clear majority—large enough to “spoil” Gore’s
chances for a victory in Florida.
Bush also owes his office to the electoral college, which permits a candidate
to lose the country’s 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 Party’s 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 Party’s 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 public’s 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 boy’s 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
Also among the factors that elected Bush is the media. Contrary to Republicans’
persistent claims about the media’s “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 media’s 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 Florida’s secretary of state to its legislature, its governor’s office,
and the transparently partisan U.S. Supreme Court, where a deciding vote
was cast on Bush’s behalf by a Chief Justice who once harassed Black and
Hispanic voters as a poll-watcher in Arizona, Bush was the beneficiary
of America’s 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 Florida—the 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 Gore’s 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 Administration—something 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 party’s
convention) to want to fight in the name of America’s 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.
Paul Street is a writer and social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois.
His articles have appeared in Z Magazine, Monthly Review, In These Times,