04 September 2004
Just four years ago, though it seems an eternity, an inconsequential Texas governor armed with an inconsequential programme, a folksy smile and vague promises of "returning dignity to the White House", accepted the nomination of his party in Philadelphia. Last night, courtesy of the US Supreme Court rather than US voters, George W Bush was at the Republican convention in Madison Square Garden to receive that distinction for a second time. The razzmatazz will be much the same as in 2000. But everything else has changed, thanks to that awful Manhattan morning of 11 September 2001.
The amiable candidate touting "compassionate conservatism" has emerged as the most divisive President of modern times. In his acceptance speech in Philadelphia, he did not once mention the word terrorism. In office, he has led his country into two wars. Despite the circumstances of his election, he has governed as if he had a huge popular mandate for his conservative programmes. He has presided over the most secretive and self-righteous administration of modern times. His arrogant style of governance has alienated foreign friends, squandering the outpouring of goodwill that followed the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Today, America's standing in the world at its lowest ebb in a generation.
Last night, however, Mr Bush depicted his presidency as a resounding success. The US, he maintains, is winning the "war on terror", Iraq is on the way to democracy. At home, the economy is enjoying a solid recovery, after tax cuts that have unleashed the entrepreneurial instincts that make America the envy of the world. And so on, and so on.
In truth however, Mr Bush's term has been more failure than success. On the domestic front, the recovery has been bought at an extremely high price. A grossly irresponsible fiscal policy has turned the healthy surplus bequeathed by Bill Clinton into the largest federal deficit in history, which threatens to burden coming generations with unsustainable debt. The record tax cuts have widened divisions between rich and poor. The Medicare reforms the administration drove through Congress will only increase the cost of America's unfair, inefficient and hugely expensive health-care system. In the short term at least, Mr Bush's plan to part-privatise social security will have the same effect. All in all, a man who wears his conservatism, like his religion, on his sleeve, has presided over an unbridled growth in government. Americans have every right to feel themselves victim of a confidence trick.
The same, of course, goes for foreign and national security, which Mr Bush has made the touchstone of his administration. Few would quarrel with the war against Afghanistan, which had sheltered the terrorists responsible for 11 September. But the war against Iraq was a confidence trick - sold to Mr Bush by a group of neo-conservative ideologues, and sold to the American people on the basis of a non-existent threat from Saddam Hussein. Some time between now and election day on 2 November, the 1,000th US soldier will die in the name of this misbegotten conflict. And that is to say nothing of the "collateral damage", the tens of thousands of Iraqi dead, the new impulse given to terrorism world-wide, and the obscenity of Abu Ghraib. Yet Mr Bush, inflexible and unable to concede human error in anything he does, sticks obstinately to the same policies and to the same individuals.
On Wednesday night, in his warm-up act for the boss, Vice President Dick Cheney sneered at "the two John Kerrys". This week's convention has displayed two George Bushes and two Republican parties. There is the warm and caring President depicted by his family and admirers. Then there is the other Bush, and the other Republican party, who will engage in distortions and character assassination - in short, "whatever it takes" - to win a second term. At Madison Square Garden, the stage management has been artful in the extreme. But all the clever packaging cannot obscure the tawdry truth beneath.