The current election cycle in the USA is unlike anything seen for a long time. Two candidates, both of whom would, in any other year, be looked on without much optimism. A democrat with one of the strongest CVs of any candidate, but who is widely mistrusted, and a Republican with no experience of public office, who has embraced a ‘lowest common denominator’ politics. As it is, polls are tight, and while I hope Hilary Clinton is able to hold on to her lead over Donald Trump, I confess to not being hugely excited about what is in store for the next four years of US politics.
This strange cycle got me thinking about another tight race. In 2000, George W. Bush nudged out another highly qualified democrat; the sitting vice president Al Gore. The election was one of four in American history (and the first since 1888) where the winning candidate received a smaller share of the vote than the runner up; Bush won 47.9% compared to Gore’s 48.4%. Yet a quirk of the American Electoral College meant that, after a Supreme Court Case, decided by 5 votes to 4, Bush won Florida, by a margin of only 537 votes, and that decision won him the election. Had a Green party candidate not run in the election, and won 97,488 votes in Florida, the results could have been very different. So, lets ask how the world would look now, if Al Gore had won.
Looking at Gore’s platform, there is much that is typical of Democratic politics. Expanding affordable health care (though one doubts it would have reached the scale of Obamacare), tax cuts to cover childcare, higher education and care for the elderly and disabled, an emphasis on education and investment in new technology. His spending plans were relatively conservative, with an emphasis on global trade, plans to pay off the national debt, lower taxes, and his platform included a commitment to ‘Keep Our Defence Strong and Protect Americans Abroad’ (though his stance on LGBT rights, including gays in the military, was firmly in the liberal camp).
Nonetheless, the world would undoubtedly have looked very different after four, or even eight years of an Al Gore presidency. When one thinks of Al Gore, the first thing which comes to mind, is his emphasis on environmental concerns. It won him a Nobel Prize after all. In 1998, America had signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, limiting man-made greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol placed the onus for reducing man-made emissions squarely on the shoulders of the industrialised nations of the developed world. In 1990, the US was responsible for 36% of global emissions, however George W. Bush opted not to ratify the treaty, as he felt that developing nations such as India and China should also be bound to reduce emissions. It is hard to imagine that Gore would have made the same decision, and with US leadership, Kyoto might have been far more successful. This success could have been built upon at subsequent COP meetings, and it would not have taken until 2016 to make real progress. The American attitude to combating climate change could have shifted, towards a focus on green energy production and reduced consumption. Where America led, the world would have followed.
Al Gore, like his republican rival, emphasised a strong military. However, one cannot help but imagine that he would have responded rather differently to the event which defines recent America history and the Bush presidency. Fifteen years on from the September 11th attacks, it is increasingly clear that George Bush had decided how to respond within days. While I cannot condemn him for reacting to the largest peace-time attack on the US in history, it is hard to imagine Al Gore choosing to respond in the way Bush did. He might well have opted to invade Afghanistan, but his wider actions would have been more moderate. It is hard to envisage Al Gore leading a coalition invasion of Iraq, without UN backing, in the way which the Chilcot report indicates Bush did.
Without a headlong rush into war in Iraq, Saddam Hussein might have been able to demonstrate that he had disarmed satisfactorily. If not, war might have been launched on a much more limited scale. Saddam could have remained in power, at least in the short term, and large scale de-Ba’athification need not have destroyed Iraq’s institutions, leading to long-term instability in the Middle East. Not distracted by two unwinnable wars, Gore would have been free to build on the Oslo Accords and the legacy of work which Bill Clinton had devoted to peace in Israel-Palestine. In other words, if Al Gore had won, the Middle East could have a two state solution, without the rise of ISIS.
Again, without two the collective trauma of two failed wars in the region, there would have been much greater appetite among the USA and key allies to support democratic protests during the Arab Spring. Perhaps, PERHAPS there might be peace in Syria, Libya and Egypt along with Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Levant.
And what of those key allies? Well, the UK would certainly look very different. The early years of Tony Blair’s government were resounding successes, with increased spending on public infrastructure, a National Minimum Wage, working tax credits, and NHS funding. Yet if you ask any voter today what defines New Labour, it will be Iraq. Tony’s illegal war. Blair the war criminal. Well, without that legacy, the Conservatives would probably still have won in 2010, again without a full majority, but come 2015, Labour might not have lost Scotland. Labour could have had the political capital to have a constructive conversation about Immigration over the last 15 years. Labour could have countered political disillusionment in its northern heartlands. Without the Iraq war, I sincerely doubt that Blair’s brand of politics would have become so reviled as to provoke the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the anti-Blair. And if there had been open conversation about immigration, if there had been real engagement with labour’s working class core voters, if someone who actually liked the EU had been Labour’s leader (that is, someone other than Corbyn), the UK might not have voted to leave the EU.
I am not seeking to place the blame for all that is wrong with British Global politics at the feet of the Florida voters who stayed home on 7th November 2000, rather than voting for al Gore. Anywhere along the way, a path could have diverged which could have made the world very different to what it is today. Obama could have placed a far greater emphasis on combatting climate change. The UN could have intervened in the Syrian civil war. Israel might not have elected the right-wing Ariel Sharon in 2001, effectively curtailing any hopes of building on the progress made during Clinton’s presidency. Blair could have opted not to support the Iraq war. He could have admitted his error and stood aside. Gordon Brown and Ed Milliband could have taken very different political tacks. Nonetheless, on that day in 2000, two roads diverged in a forest…
I can’t help but wonder if, in 2032, I will look back on November 2016 with the same frustration.