Robert Dallek: Bush Should Use His 2nd Term to Clean Up the Mistakes of the 1st

Roundup: Historians' Take

Robert Dallek, in the Belfast Telegraph (Nov. 5, 2004):

One of the ugliest elections in American presidential history is over but the deep divide in the country is anything but.

For all the talk about the economy, job losses, budget deficits and health insurance as well as terrorism, Iraq, and the character flaws of both men - one a flip-flopper and the other a flimflam man - the compelling issue seems to have been cultural values. Where voters stood on abortion, gay rights, gun control, stem-cell research and religious faith was apparently more important than other public policies.

Conservative states - red on the map - seem to have ignored Bush's generally poor record in both domestic and foreign affairs to keep someone in the White House who reflected their outlook on American values and their seeming indifference to world opinion. The more progressive blue states cast their ballots less for Kerry and more against Bush. His ultra-conservatism - which they saw reflected in his tax cuts, faith-based initiative, appointment of John Ashcroft as Attorney General, judicial selections, stingy backing of stem-cell studies, abuse of civil liberties, support of a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, and a distinctly limited coalition fighting a questionable war in Iraq - deeply offended them.

The anger toward the President and closely divided popular and electoral votes can be seen as "an alarm bell in the night", to quote what Thomas Jefferson said in 1820 about the dangers to the Union from the growing national divide over slavery.

The current cultural split in the United States is reminiscent of the bitter conflict in the 1920s between urban modernists and rural fundamentalists. For the first time in its history, more Americans, including millions of southern and eastern European immigrants who had flooded into the country in the previous 50 years, were living in cities of 100,000 or more.

Farmers and small-town residents, seeing a danger to the traditional way of American life from the attitudes of city dwellers, won passage of a Prohibition Amendment to the Constitution, the National Origins Act establishing ethnic quotas favouring north-western Europeans. They resurrected a Ku Klux Klan preaching anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and 100 per cent "Americanism", which meant strict segregation of southern blacks and bars against teaching evolution in the schools.

The famous Scopes trial pitted William Jennings Bryan, representing the state of Tennessee, against the Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow defending the biology teacher John Scopes. The trial encapsulated the national tensions between church-going, bible-reading Americans in rural areas across the South and Middle West and big city sophisticates contemptuous of their "backwater" compatriots.

Somewhat like the 2000 and 2004 elections, Scopes was a clash of the coasts and big cities in the upper Midwest on one hand, and the millions of generally less educated, white Protestants in the South and prairie states, on the other....

What comes next? If Bush pushes his conservative agenda in a second term, trying to overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade abortion ruling by appointing ultra conservative justices to the Supreme Court, for example, it will deepen the antagonisms in the country and likely produce an explosion of opposition reminiscent of the antiwar movement of the Sixties.

By contrast, if Bush consults the larger national interest, finds an early exit strategy for Iraq and tempers his conservative social agenda, he could ease the almost palpable anger of Democrats and leave a legacy of reasonably successful leadership. With control of both Houses of Congress and numerous judicial appointments likely to be available in the next four years, Bush's historical reputation will be very much in his own hands. On the basis of his first term, which I and many others see as a failure, Bush will go down as one of the worst Presidents of the past 100 years. He needs a second term to rectify the damage done in the first.

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