Jessica Lynch, the now famous US army private, captured in Iraq, it seems, only to be brilliantly rescued by special forces, has a younger sister, Brandy. This summer Brandy, too, is going to enlist. There is nothing else to do in her county Wirt, West Virginia. The county with 8,000 Americans living there is totally bankrupt. Its building industry has collapsed, unemployment is twice as high as the national average, while the only "surviving" business - a handicraft workshop - is leisurely stamping out clay cock figurines.
What do we care about the glorious victory in Iraq? the co-citizens of the brave soldier Lynch say spitefully. You should better tell us when rural West Virginia will be revived and how much it will cost.
Such sentiments prevail these days almost throughout the United States. The administration, with bronze busts of Saddam Hussein toppled into the dust, has taken up domestic chores again and thing No. 1 is a highly sickly economy. While Bush's war rating soars above 73 per cent, his management of the national economy tips the scales at only 46 per cent. The president seems to be trying to stand on two feet, one shorter than the other.
This precarious imbalance was pounded on by the leadership of the Democratic Party as soon as they got out of bunkers after quietly waiting out the entire war. Richard Gephardt, one of the Democratic presidential candidates, went specially to New Hampshire - the site of the first primaries in the 2004 election campaign - to vent his "fury" over the economic downturn and financial uncertainty. Nancy Pelosi, the democratic minority leader in the House of Representatives, in her turn urged closing the military page and returning to "the issues of the home dinner table": employment, available medical care, and an industrial recovery.
And both Democrats threatened Bush with the same sad paradox that happened to his father.
Indeed, the situation seems to be mirror-like at first glance. After expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait with triumph in the summer of 1991, George Bush Sr was awarded a truly sky-high rating. But in the remaining 16 months until a presidential ballot the popular adulation quickly waned. The "liberator of Kuwait" lost 56 percentage points and ceded 6 million votes to the little known Arkansas governor Bill Clinton. The Republican pundits wrung their arms with a mute question in their eyes: "Why, oh why?" The reply given by James Carville, the most famed political consultant in America ever since, has been carved into the public mind for ever:
"It's all the economy, you silly".
The American economy today, experts think, is perhaps in a far more parlous state than 12 years ago. Just look at the tip of the looming iceberg. Since George W. Bush moved into the White House the country's stock market has depreciated by about 30 per cent. Gone are two million jobs. The budget surplus has given way to a deficit amounting to 400 billion. Economic growth between 2000 and 2002 was the slowest ever for any three-year span since the first Persian Gulf war, mind you.
Nevertheless American political history is unlikely to repeat itself. It looks the son president has learned well the lesson he read between the lines of his father's biography.
First, unlike father, Bush Jr is perfectly aware - perhaps thanks to his advisers - of the keenness of popular concern evoked by economic troubles. Just leaked into the press, a confidential memo of the Republican Party lectures its activists: "2003 is not 1991 ... Focus on the issue of jobs ... Encourage economic debates ... " The president knows what needs to be aired in the course of such party discussions. It is his idea to reduce federal taxes by 726 billion over the next ten years and to stimulate an economic revival. This is in direct contrast to what his father did. In 1992, Bush Sr is considered to have lost his "Kuwait liberator" halo, antagonised conservatives and, consequently, lost a sizeable proportion of the electorate precisely over his decision to raise taxes.
Bush Jr's fiscal programme is not to the liking of everybody either. The point is that the administration has conceived to cut taxes mainly on stock market dividends. The expectation is that booming share prices will be the best incentive for an economic upswing. But actually it is nothing but subsidising share investors at federal expense. The wisdom of such a contraption made up of two communicating vessels seems doubtful to many financial experts.
And above all to Alan Greenspan, chairman of the US Federal Reserve System. The 77-year-old doyen, as Washington rumours have it, considers the president's tax-reducing scheme too hare-brained. On the other hand, leaks and differences between Greenspan and the White House began developing into a factor of financial destabilisation. Rumours started that the Fed chairman, who has led the institution since 1997, will resign after his current term expires in the summer of next year.
On Tuesday, George W. Bush put a resolute end to these pernicious misstatements, saying that he would like to see Greenspan in his post further. At the same time the president sent 26 ranking messengers across the country to try to win over the sceptics to the advantages of tax cuts. In that way, the son has finally and utterly stepped off the path beaten by his father.
But the main dissimilarity lies, of course, elsewhere. Twelve years ago America won its first Persian Gulf war, it seemed, finally and irreversibly. A sense of finality and triumph was all-pervading. The Berlin wall was down. The Cold War was over. The philosopher Francis Fukuyama deliberated on the end of mankind's political history as we know it, and readers pored over them into the small hours of the morning.
But for George Bush Jr , it is all only beginning. The victory in Iraq is only the second stage, after Afghanistan, of this strange, vacuous and time- and space-eating war against a faceless enemy - international terrorism.
Twelve years ago American voters were able to switch over from the war to domestic economics. The voters in the presidential campaign of 2004 will not be able to do so. National security will be the main determining factor breathing down the neck of every American as he or she faces a voting machine. George Bush will appear before the electorate not so much an uncouth economic manager, as a victorious commander-in-chief who is not to be swapped between battles. In this sense the president son has been a hundred time luckier than his president father.
But only for the time being. Or rather until the moment when the voter may suspect that the war on terrorism is just a screen for the Republican White House to cover up its domestic setbacks.
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