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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
September 4, 2003

Long-term Trends and Short-term Fluctuations in American Politics

Fumiaki KUBO (A. Barton Hepburn Professor of American Government and History, the Graduate School of Law and Politics, the University of Tokyo)

Fluctuations in American politics

Here in Japan, we heard the phrase "the hegemony of neo-cons" very often in the first part of this year. In the United States, neo-conservatives are not new at all, being around perhaps since the 1970s. It might be only in Japan that the word "neo-con" became so popular that we saw the word almost every week even in the tabloids, while only few people know the exact meaning of the word. Many Japanese just believe that "neo-cons" are ultra-conservatives who do not hesitate to resort to force, or even warmongers. But the fact is that there are few neo-conservatives in the true meaning of the word, such as at the top of the Bush Administration. We cannot understand the motives and thinking of Bush foreign policy unless we take into account those people such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or Condoleeza Rice, who are not neo-conservatives.

At the same time, we have to be aware of the degree to which the neo-con way of thinking and their attitude have penetrated the Republican Party and enjoyed its support since the early 1980s. Certainly it is not just the neo-conservatives that promoted "peace through strength" foreign policy, which was what Henry ‘Scoop' Jackson and Ronald Reagan advocated. Traditional hawks also supported this line of foreign policy. But since the Republican Party broadened its base to include conservative Christians in the late 1970s, the morality argument both in domestic politics and foreign policy has resonated with the sentiments and feelings of these deeply religious grass-roots voters. It is the coalition of the neo-conservatives, traditional hawks, anti-communists, and the conservative Christians that fought their archenemy in the party: the Nixon-Kissinger group and their policies including détente and China policy.

The Transformation of the Republican Party

In the early 1970s the Republican Party was still lead by moderates such as Nixon, Ford, and Rockefeller. But by the mid-1990s it was basically dominated by conservatives. With the start of "the Reagan Revolution" in the early 1980s, the conservatives rose to power. But their reign was not solid enough at that time because they still had to depend on moderates to govern. In 1988 power fell to George Bush, a moderate by origin, who eventually alienated conservatives by tax-raising and more regulation. It was in the mid-term election of 1994 that the rise of conservatives was finally completed. Led by Newt Gingrich and other conservatives in the Reagan tradition, the Republican Party was by then a very different party from what it used to be in the 1970s. In the 1990s the coalition of such forces as anti-tax groups, small business, religious and cultural conservatives, libertarians, home schoolers, and strong defense interests--some of which were very new to the party--became the core of the base. The Republicans' 1976 platform supported the Equal Rights Amendment, but it was rather quiet on that in 1980, and in 1984 the party was flatly opposed to it. In the late 1990s what was missing in the party was the once-dominating liberal to moderate wing, which was internationalist and moderate in foreign affairs too. The rise of small business neutralized the strong influence of the internationalist establishment based in the business community that used to be dominant in foreign affairs.

Since 1995, the Republicans in Congress made a number of important policy initiatives not only in domestic but also foreign polices. They criticized pro-China policy, North Korean policy, the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, and intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo by Clinton, strongly promoted national missile defense and rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In fact, G. W. Bush accepted with small modifications almost all of these policies that had been already tested and practiced by the congressional Republicans. The origins of Bush foreign policy lay in the conservative congressional Republicans in the latter half of the 1990s.

A weakness in American politics

The U.S. is very good at fighting wars, but it is doubtful that it is good at keeping large-scale military forces in a foreign country for occupation or reconstruction purposes for a long time, or spending large amounts of money for assistance to foreign countries. The Marshall Plan probably was an exception during the cold war. In fact, President G. W. Bush announced the Marshall Plan for Afghanistan with fanfare in 2002, but what his Administration has delivered is far less than Truman did for Europe in the late 1940s.

Now, many Americans whose family members are serving in Iraq are writing their Congressmen or the White House, asking why their loved ones cannot come back while the war is over. More and more politicians, especially Democrats, have started to say that the United States should let the United Nations or other countries take care of post-war Iraq. Whether the U.S. carries out the reconstruction of Iraq is a matter of serious concern. It is exposed to conflicting pressures: to withdraw (go home!), or to stay and complete.

The 2004 Election

The fate of the father of the current President is a good reminder of what might happen in the 2004 election. In 1992, President George Bush was defeated after once enjoying an almost 90% approval rate immediately after the end of the Gulf War. There seems to be two lessons for his son. One is that the economy is still by far the most important factor for his reelection, even if he is an extremely popular President winning the war. Another is that, as a Republican candidate, he cannot win if he has alienated the party's conservative base.

Apparently, the son has been loyal to the second lesson since inauguration. His Administration is the most conservative in recent times. In other words, the G. W. Bush Administration is even more conservative than the Reagan Administration, not to mention his father's.

Sometimes the economy is beyond the control of politics. But for Bush, a large-scale tax cut might backfire. A tax-cut is not a prescription for economic recovery for conservatives. Bush proposed a big tax cut in 2000 and 2001 as a stimulus to the economy. But he had proposed it in 1999 when the American economy was at its peak, which suggested that he embraces it in whatever shape the economy is in, mostly because it comes from his ideology rather than as a means to overcome the economic downturn. If the economy does not recover he will have to accept all the blame, let alone for the ballooning budget deficit. At this moment, the Democratic presidential candidates have enough ammunition to attack the Bush economic policy, including the unemployment rate, job losses, stock prices and the budget deficit.

Besides, Bush will have to face an uphill battle if the situation in Iraq in the fall of 2004 is still in chaos. During the occupation period alone there have been casualties of more than three hundred, for example.

There is a pitfall for the Democrats, too. If a Democratic presidential nominee is too much a "peace candidate" such as George McGovern was in 1972 and too much a liberal, they will give up a chance to win back power. He or she could be critical of the Iraq occupation and reconstruction policy, but in order to be a credible candidate before the American public he or she must present a tough anti-terrorism measure. This is one of the ever-lasting legacies of 9-11.

Now that Republicans and Democrats are so polarized not only in domestic programs but also in diplomatic policy, a possible new Democratic Administration might reverse many of the foreign policy initiatives made by the Bush Presidency except for tough anti-terrorist measures. We have to think through what kind of and how much change such a new Administration will bring about in foreign policy, including toward Japan and Asia. In January 2001, many Japanese clearly underestimated the extent of the break the new Administration would cause with the previous Administration.

Depending on the kind of lesson Bush will get from Iraq, the second term of the Bush Presidency might undergo some transformation in its foreign policy outlook. The possible Democratic Administration might present another foreign policy break, depending on who gets the nomination. We would not like to see a substantial part of the American military just withdraw from Iraq. We would not like to see KEDO II again, either.

Under the polarized state of American politics, so much is at stake in the next election. Not just for Americans but also for us.

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