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The US Election: prospects for the new administration

A Note by the Director (Ditchley 2005/03)
 
25-27 February 2005
 
The coldest weekend of the winter so far brought Ditchley a high-temperature conference of political discussion as we looked at the implications of the US Election results of November 2004 and tried to work out what George W Bush’s Second Term might bring.  This was inevitably an event out of the Ditchley norm, in that no agreed conclusions were ever going to be likely on the political aspects.  But the frank spirit of the discussion and the all-pervasive importance of the subject-matter made for a lively and very interesting weekend.  This Note will touch on some selected aspects of the conference;  but because of the political sensitivity of much of the discussion parts of it will need to reside in the memories of the participants.
The conference was in little doubt that the elections provided evidence of division and partisanship in American political life.  It was noted that two close Presidential elections in succession went against the historical norm of 40-45 year cycles in which conservative or liberal thinking predominated.  We never made up our minds whether the country was divided 50/50 or 33/33/33 or 45/45/10 (the last of these was accumulating more adherents as the weekend wore on). But most believed that the strength of support for the two main political philosophies was evenly matched.  A second feature of the elections was the abnormally high level of partisan intensity.  The effect of this might have been to make quite small political or presentational mistakes in another context very damaging in the election campaign itself.  One participant suggested that such a level of partisanship was making the American political scene look more like a European parliamentary one.  Within a Presidential system it made the moderate centre appear much less influential than the extremes.  It was not clear whether this was a temporary phenomenon or a trend towards more permanent divisions:  there were few current signs of change back to the more normal scenario of lesser contrast.  It would need strong leadership to hold the country together across such divisions and it was not yet clear whether or not this would be forthcoming.  And yet there was a centre out there in popular opinion which would need to be represented.  If this was an accurate picture of the current American scene, the coming period could prove to be a dangerous and brittle time. 
In examining the details of what was going on and trying to calculate the causes, the conference made a distinction between opinions, attitudes and values within the American electorate.  The first represented views on issues which could readily change and which, taken together, might not add up to a solid political philosophy;  attitudes were more deep-rooted, but could evolve with deeper understanding and good leadership;  values went to the core of an individual’s make-up and rarely changed.  If the divisions in American society turned from attitudes into values – and there was some indication that this might be the case – then they could last for a long time.  While the effect of 9/11 was probably not responsible for the trend towards polarisation – it stemmed rather from the nature of modern politics – the 9/11 shock probably accentuated it, not least by crystallising the sense of mission in the Bush White House. 
We took a close look at the nature of a second Presidential Term.  It was difficult to maintain the same level of energy and bring in the same number of new ideas as in a first Term.  The ruling party was more likely to be affected by divisions when there was no re-election reason to keep them in check.  Scandals or accidents tended to be more likely.  And, as the four years progressed, thoughts turned with growing intensity to the legacy and the succession.  It was thought that the Second Term Bush team would probably not lose energy, but they were likely to be liable to the other phenomena.  The 9/11 effect was unlikely to be repeated.  People also wondered whether the Second Term Administration would set itself too ambitious targets:  overreach could very easily affect the fortunes of the Republican Party in the 2006 mid-term elections, if not in 2008 itself.  This was an important criterion by which to judge the prospects for a Democratic comeback, which the majority believed was possible in 2006. 
Much of this discussion was tempered by analysis of President Bush’s political tactics and by the realisation that his political and personal confidence was much more evident now than in 2001.  While he could not yet be declared a transformational President, he was certainly a transformed President after 9/11.  His tactics were founded on confirming and reinforcing his political base at regular intervals.  To create enough of a consensus to achieve a legislative or policy result, he would only go out to find allies elsewhere in the structure to the degree necessary to achieve the result.  Handled skilfully, as on the whole it had been in the first Term, this was an effective approach.  But it also tended to underline partisanship.  If applied to the President’s programme on domestic issues in the Second Term, and particularly to the issue of social security, it could cause the Republican Party considerable difficulties.  Some participants nevertheless felt that there was in fact a deal to be had on social security if the draft legislation focussed on the right areas, such as add-on accounts.  The problem of timing was nevertheless going to be hard to judge.  Enough Republicans had to be persuaded that the target was achievable;  but the initiative could not be left too late.  It might turn out that too many people felt that change was just not in their interest.  There was also a good case to be made that other issues, for instance energy or healthcare, deserved just as much attention as social security. 
The conference looked specifically at the prospects for the economy.  There were differences of view as to whether the size of public and private debt had reached an irremediable point or whether the widely expected problems might not simply fade away, as had happened in the past.  President Bush was expected not to go into reverse in his opposition to new taxes and it was difficult to see how the figures would add up.  There was greater agreement on the apparent weakness of the current economic team and any likely successors to them in the Second Term.  The President himself had not indicated that he would focus particularly strongly on the economy.  And the prospects for attracting experts in the right areas, from the Treasury Secretary downwards, did not currently look bright.
In the field of foreign policy, we examined in some detail the results of President Bush’s recent visit to Europe.  The fresh tone of diplomacy in the Bush approach, and in that of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before him, was judged to have been quite skilfully prepared.  Some felt that it was new icing on the same cake;  others pointed to substantive changes in what the President had said about supporting the EU on Iran and about creating a contiguous Palestinian state.  There was more general agreement, in spite of some European protestation, that the European leaders had not taken the opportunity to respond in kind.  Participants pointed out that the United States was never going to go all the way towards European positions just to mend a transatlantic political or policy gap.  It would be necessary for Europe to bring something substantive to the table, perhaps on the Middle East peace process, possibly on Iran, certainly in due course on defence or at least on peacekeeping capability.  Washington might otherwise very quickly lose interest.  It was in any case noted that the US press gave a good deal more space and attention to President Bush’s meeting with President Putin than to the implications of his meeting with EU leaders. 
Whether or not the EU pulled its weight on Iran, this issue was considered to be a litmus test of the Administration’s Second Term foreign policy agenda.  A solution was not yet in sight.  Iran played into a wider non-proliferation requirement, within which a serious US input into the reinvigoration of the NPT would be an important signal.   On Iraq, it was suggested that the 30 January elections might have eased the Administration’s political burdens;  but others felt that disasters remained possible, not least in the further turning of US domestic opinion against the cost in lives and resources of the American effort in Iraq. 
The importance of China was underlined, with most people expecting that both countries would look for a pragmatic relationship with each other.  But the ever-present possibility of a crisis over Taiwan qualified this outlook, not least for the countries in the region who might be caught up in it.  We put our finger on the Middle East Peace Process as the area most likely to receive a fresh injection of Second Term energy, with Dr Rice in the operational lead.  The prospects were uncertain if only because the two sides remained so far apart on the substance.  But this was the foreign policy subject most likely to be caught up in concepts of a Bush legacy beyond the Second Term. 
Underlying these specific foreign policy issues were the two Bush signature themes of counter-terrorism and democratisation.  The group handling international issues wanted to see a much broader spread of ingredients in the US fight against terrorism, which several participants felt uncomfortable about calling a “war”.  These included pursuit of the long-term goal of democratising the Middle East;  the sustained rebuilding of American’s alliances at the hard end of counter-terrorism operations;  an active support for the peace process in the Middle East;  a restored commitment to the rule of law internationally and to multilateral solutions (including for proliferation);  a consistent engagement of the United States in a development programme in Africa and other low development countries;  an understanding of the differences between terrorist groups in their specific makeup and context;  and a readiness to look at the political arms of former terrorist groups as potential opposite numbers in negotiations.  This comprehensive recipe was regarded as a tall order for a Bush Administration, considering where it was coming from.  But it was an illustration of the wish of a majority of conference participants to see the United States turn to instruments other than just military force to eradicate the threat of terrorism.
This exchange was linked with an analysis of Washington’s democratisation agenda and with a discussion of the nature of hard and soft power.  Democratisation was all very well, but it was not being, and was not likely to be, applied consistently across the whole range of American relationships:  Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, China, Venezuela were mentioned in this respect.  But some felt that a selective democratisation policy carried some benefits even if it failed to achieve consistency.  As for soft power, the conference successfully resisted a starry-eyed approach, with most people agreeing that multilateralism, persuasiveness and legitimacy were welcome attributes, but that soft power did not achieve very much unless hard power was available behind it.  Here above all,  Europeans and Americans ought to strive for a clearer understanding of the value of different policy  instruments in the real world. 
In amongst the discussion of issues came an analysis of the new team in Washington.  This Note will not mention names.  But most participants welcomed the new State Department senior structure as containing considerable diplomatic strength.  The jury was out on the Pentagon, where changes might or might not happen.  As already noted, the economic team appeared weak, with no solutions in sight.  Within the White House itself, considerable talent remained for both political strategy and policy control.
The conference enjoyed looking for a few moments at the possible legacy of two terms of George W Bush.  There were several potential elements:  social legislation;  the make-up of the Supreme Court;  the strength of the Republican Party in the country;  a successful security doctrine, which was where foreign policy objectives were really focussed;  and an America with a sense of mission and purpose.  We did not come to any conclusions beyond thinking, as a majority, that the bequeathing of a legacy would be important to the President.  His own personality and values would be stamped on this Administration.  But plans could easily go awry and the threat of the unpredictable loomed large. 
This sense of uncertainty about the effect of events made the conference humble about its own predictions.  The passage of not many months could make them seem out of date.  But Ditchley and its guests all profited from listening to the views of others, whatever the political differences.  And we ended the weekend with a much clearer appreciation of the factors at play.  For that we have to thank our Chairman for his ordered structuring of a complex and sensitive debate and the participants for their frankness and broadmindedness.  The product of the conference will play into much of Ditchley’s agenda in the months ahead.
This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression

PARTICIPANTS

Chairman    :    Sir Christopher Meyer
Chairman, Press Complaints Commission (2003-).  Formerly:  HM Diplomatic Service (1966-2003);  Ambassador to the United States of American (1997-2003);  to Germany (1997);  Press Secretary to Prime Minister (1994-96) 
 
AUSTRALIA
Dr Michael Fullilove
Programme Director, Global Issues, Lowy Institute (2004-).  Formerly:  Lawyer, United Nations Transitional Administration, East Timor;  Adviser to Prime Minister, Paul Keating.
BRAZIL
His Excellency Mr Jose M Bustani
Ambassador of Brazil to the Court of St James’s (2004-).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
CANADA
His Excellency Mr Mel Cappe
High Commissioner for Canada (2002-).  Formerly:  Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet (1999-2002).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Pierre Marc Johnson
Senior Counsellor, Heenan Blakie (1996-).  Formerly:  Premier of Quebec.
The Hon Roy MacLaren PC
Formerly:  High Commissioner for Canada in the United Kingdom (1996-2000);  Minister for International Trade (1993-96).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Dr Alexander Moens
Professor, Political Science, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver;  Senior Fellow in American Policy, Fraser Institute.
Dr Stephen Randall FRSC
Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Calgary (1994-).  Formerly:  Transitional Authority for Cambodia, Carter Center (1990-98).  Author.
Mr William Robson
Senior Vice President and Director of Research, C D Howe Institute;  President, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.  Author.

GERMANY              
Dr Christoph Bertram

Director, Foundation for Science and Policy (1998-);  Formerly:  Contributing Editor, Foreign Policy Magazine, Washington;  Board Member, International Crisis Group.
Ambassador Hermann von Richthofen GCVO
Formerly:  Chairman, German-British Association (1999-2004);  Co-Chairman, British-German Königswinter Conference (1999-2004);  Ambassador to the UK (1988-1998);  Permanent Representative of the Federal Republic of Germany to North Atlantic Council.  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
FRANCE       
Ambassador François Bujon de l’Estang
Chairman, Citigroup. France.  Formerly:  French Diplomatic Service;  Ambassador of France to the United States (1999-2004).
Professor Anne Marie Le Gloannec
Professor, Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (1977-).  Formerly:  Research Fellow, Centre Marc Bloch, Berlin (1997-2003).  Author.
IRELAND
His Excellency Dáithí O’Ceallaigh
Ambassador of Ireland to the Court of St James’s (2001-).  Ambassador, Finland and Estonia (1993-98);  Consul General, New York (1987-93).
UNITED KINGDOM
Dr Andrew Adonis
Prime Minister’s Policy Unit (1998-);  Senior Policy Adviser (2004-).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Sir Michael Angus DL
Formerly:  Chairman, Whitbread plc (1992-2000).  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Lord Dahrendorf of Clare Market KBE FBA
Chairman, Delegated Powers Select Committee, House of Lords (2002-).  Formerly:  Warden, St Antony’s College, Oxford (1987-97).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Charles Grant
Co-founder and Director, Centre for European Reform (1996-);  Board Member and Trustee, British Council (2002-);   Member, Committee for Russia in a United Europe;  Chairman of the Council of Experts, Moscow School of Political Studies.
Ms Anji Hunter     
Director of Communications, British Petroleum plc (2002-).  Formerly;  Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (1997-2001);  Director of Government Relations, Prime Minister’s Policy Unit (2001-2002).
The Hon Peter Jay
Non-executive Director, The Bank of England (2003-);  Writer and Broadcaster.  Formerly:  Economics and Business Editor BBC (1990-2001);  Ambassador to the United States of America (1977-79).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr James Naughtie
Correspondent, BBC ‘Today’ Programme.
Lord Powell of Bayswater KCMG
Chairman, Sagitta Asset Management Ltd (2001-);  LVMH (UK) (2000-).  Formerly:  Private Secretary to the Prime Minister (1983-91);  HM Diplomatic Service (1963-83).
Sir Bob Reid
Chairman, International Petroleum Exchange;  Director, CHC Helicopter Corporation and Intercontinental Exchange Inc.  Formerly:  Deputy Governor, Bank of Scotland (1997-2004);  Director, Bank of Scotland (1987-1997);  Chairman, Sears plc (1995-1999);  Chairman, British Rail (1990-95).
Mr Peter Riddell
Assistant Editor, Politics, The Times (1993-);  Broadcaster.  Author.
Mr Xan Smiley
Middle East and Africa Editor, The Economist.  Formerly:  Washington Correspondent, Daily Telegraph (1989-1992);  Correspondent Moscow (1986-1989);  Middle East Editor, The Economist (1983-1986).
The Hon Nicholas Soames MP
Member of Parliament, Conservative, Mid-Sussex (1997-);  Crawley (1983-1997);  Shadow Secretary of State for Defence (2002-).  Formerly:  Minister of State for Defence (1994-1997).
Mr Philip Stephens
Associate Editor and Chief Political Commentator, Financial Times.  Formerly:  Editor, UK Edition, Political Editor and Economics Correspondent.
UNITED KINGDOM/UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Ms Tina Brown
Columnist, The Washington Post;  The Times, London (2003-).  Formerly:  Editor, Tatler, Vanity Fair and New Yorker magazine.
Dr Jef McAllister
London Bureau Chief, Time Magazine.
Mr Stryker McGuire
London Bureau Chief, Newsweek Magazine.
Ms Ziba Norman
Research Director, Transatlantic Institute.
Mrs Cita Stelzer
Research Associate, Hudson Institute, Washington.  Formerly:  Policy Adviser to the former May and Governor, New York.
Dr Irwin Stelzer
US Columnist for the Sunday Times;  Director, Economic Policy Studies, Hudson Institute, Washington;  Visiting Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford.
Professor Sir Robert Worcester KBE
Chairman, Market & Opinion Research International;  Visiting Professor of Government and Governor, London School of Economics & Political Science;  Governor and Member of Council, University of Kent;  Chairman of the Executive Committee, Pilgrims Society.  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
The Hon Dr John Brademas
President Emeritus, New York University (1992-).  Formerly:  President, New York University (1981-92);  Member, 86th-96th Congresses (1959-81);  House Majority Whip (1977-81).  Chairman, American Ditchley Foundation;  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Dr Lynne Brown
Senior Vice President, University Relations and Public Affairs, New York University.  Formerly:  Acting Vice President, Student Affairs, New York University (2001-2003).
Senator Gary Hart
Co-Chair, United States Commission on National Security 21st Century;  Senior Counsel, Coudert Brothers.  Formerly:  United States Senator for Colorado (1975-1987).  Visiting Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford;  Member of the Council on Foreign Affairs.
Mr Jim Hoagland
Associate Editor and Foreign Correspondent, The Washington Post.
Mr James Hoge Jr
Editor, Foreign Affairs, (1992-).  Member, Board of Directors, and Chairman of the Advisory Council, The American Ditchley Foundation.
Hon David T Johnson
Deputy Chief of Mission and Charge d’Affaires, United States Embassy, London (2003-);  United States Foreign Service (1977-).  Formerly:  Afghan Coordinator for the United States (2001-2003).
Mr Robert G Kaiser
Associate Editor and Senior Correspondent, The Washington Post (1998-).  Formerly:  Managing Editor (1991-98).  A Member of the Board of Director, The American Ditchley Foundation.
Honorable Rick Lazio
Executive Vice Chairman, J P Morgan plc.  Formerly:  President and Chief Executive Officer, the Financial Services Forum (2000-2004);  Member of the House of Representatives (1992-2000).
Mr Norman J Ornstein
Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute;  Director, Transition to Governing Project and the Campaign Finance Reform Working Group (2000-).     
Mr Bob Shrum
Senior Fellow, New York University;  Political Consultant, Shrum, Devine and Donilon.  Formerly:  Senior Advisor, Kerry Edwards Campaign (2004);  Senior Advisor to the Core (2000) Presidential Campaign.
Ms Judy Woodruff
Prime Anchor and Senior Correspondent CNN.  Formerly:  Chief Washington correspondent, NBC’s Today Show (1982-83);  NBC White House correspondent (1977-1982).
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/UNITED KINGDOM
Mr Lionel Barber

Managing Editor, Financial Times, United States (2003-);  Formerly:  News Editor, Financial Times (1998-2003).