US Elections

TweedleKerry, TweedleBush: US voters face choice which is no choice

In the Netherlands and many other European countries the assumption has been too easily made that the United States would become in every way better under John Kerry than it is under George W. Bush. Some go so far as to express the opinion that Kerry would be as markedly to the left as Bush is to the right. Yet by any European or Dutch standards both of then are well to the right, while it has to be said that the Kerry’s USA would follow much the same foreign policy as has Bush’s. The American two-party system offers only a narrow choice. This should make us think very hard about the currently mooted reform of our own electoral system.

Although Iraq is for the moment attracting intense interest in both Europe and America, the average American will not cast his or her vote on 2nd November on the basis of a consideration of foreign policy. More than a thousand American dead have of course had their impact, but the domestic problems of the US will have vastly greater influence. According to a recent poll in Newsweek, voters see internal security and the state of the economy as of far greater importance than they do Iraq. And with good reason: economist and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz has calculated that the average (modal) real income under Bush has fallen by $1500 p.a. and that the number of people lacking any health insurance has grown by 5,2 million to a total of 45 million. Bush is furthermore the first President since the 1930s whose term of office has seen a net fall in the number of jobs. Yet none of this has done anything to repair government finances. While Democratic President Bill Clinton left office with a budget surplus equivalent to 2% of GDP, Bush has transformed this into a 5% deficit. This is largely a result of the lowering of taxes on the incomes of the rich. All of this would surely amount to reasons enough for a radical change of course in economic policy, or so you would think.

It is, however, doubtful if any real socio-economic changes would actually take place under Kerry’s leadership. The Democratic candidate has already promised that 98% of Americans will hold on to their tax cuts while 99% will see their taxes fall by 5%. Looking at his economic ideas, it is clear that he has not learnt Clinton’s lesson: ‘it’s the economy, stupid’. Neither is there anything "left wing" about his social policy. Under Bush, spending on Medicare, on health care for people on low incomes, has greatly increased, a fact which Kerry has criticised. Bush increased the education budget by 75% to 65 billion dollars – once again Kerry has opposed this. Nor has he embraced other traditional themes of the European left. He supports the death penalty, the right to bear arms, and a weak environmental policy, and avoids subjects such as trade union rights, abortion and the position of minorities. Of course, right-wing policies are hardly unusual under a Democratic president. Under Clinton, the prison population doubled, the rate of poverty fell only slightly and nothing whatsoever came of the promised reform of health care. Vote Democrat and see where it gets you!

By placing all his bets on Iraq instead of concentrating on domestic socio-economic issues, Kerry is taking a huge risk. His complaint that Bush "fought the wrong war for the wrong reasons" is something with which many Americans concur, but it is doubtful whether this will prove decisive when they cast their votes on 2nd November. Europeans also see this as of particular importance. It is therefore especially disappointing that closer study reveals that the assumption that Kerry will pursue a foreign policy different in its essentials to that of Bush.

Rand Beers, Kerry’s national security adviser, a short while ago began an information session on the Democrats’ foreign policy with the announcement that their aims differed little from those of the Republicans. The Democrats as much as their opponents see room for unilateralism. Clinton already showed this with the repeated bombardment of Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan. Kerry also supported the invasion of Iraq, an act branded "illegal" by Kofi Annan, even if the candidate now believes that the UN should take a greater role. And just like Bush, Kerry asserts that the US should react without mercy if it is again attacked, supporting moreover Israel’s illegal policy of liquidation. While Kerry has, in other words, certainly his criticisms of Bush’s Iraq policy, he will not withdraw the troops and has not ruled out further invasions without UN authorisation in the future. In order not to appear as soft and to attract voters from outside the Democratic camp, he began his most important speech to date with the greeting: "I am John Kerry and I am reporting for duty."

All things considered, a choice between Kerry and Bush is like being asked to choose between stale bread and mouldy cheese. It is certainly not a choice between left and right, because any real difference on important issues is clearly absent. A vote for third party candidate Ralph Nader would be a vote for greener and more socially-minded policies, but will not produce any obvious result, given that Nader has no chance of winning and will simply once again reduce the Democratic candidate’s chances of victory. The Dutch voter would also be frustrated by such a limited choice. If you’re looking for persuasive evidence that we should hold on to our current electoral system and not exchange it for one based on two or three parties, look no further. The pluralism of our political landscape represents an enormous achievement. There is nothing to envy in the position in which American voters will find themselves in on 2nd November.

Harry van Bommel is one of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands’ eight Members of Parliament and its spokesman on international affairs.