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The 'Borat' Election

The world is watching today's vote to see whether Americans still support George W. Bush.

By Howard Fineman
Updated: 7:19 a.m. PT Nov 7, 2006
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Nov. 7, 2006 - Call it the Borat Election. As Americans go to the polls today, they speak not only to themselves and their government, but also to the world. Across the planet, people want to know: do Americans still see the world the way George W. Bush does? Do they still accept (or tolerate) his theory of how to achieve peace and security? Or have Americans come to view him the way comedian Sacha Baron Cohen—slyly, through his Borat character—does: as a rootin’-tootin’, boorish fool who breaks every lamp in the antique store?

Do we believe in the president’s war in Iraq, or not? The world wants to know. It will react accordingly.

Our elections have never really been our own; the world always has sought lessons and leverage here. That is even more the case now, in the aftermath of 9/11, in the midst of what some call the “clash of civilizations,” at a time when capital, data and ideas flow across what used to be borders. We invented the idea that public opinion governs. The way we conduct our elections, and the outcomes of them, matters to the world we helped bring into being.

Do Americans care what the rest of the world thinks of us? Even if they do, will that influence how we vote? Talking to voters this year I was struck by the extent to which they were thinking in global terms—about terrorism, trade, the planetary environment, music and culture.
In the absence of another idea, most Americans accepted the Texan president’s “One Riot, One Ranger” theory of “taking the war to the terrorists,” even, if not especially, in Iraq.

But there have been costs, and the American people are beginning to do the worldwide strategic and ethical math.

Voters are angry about the loss of American life and treasure, but many of them also worry about whether we are losing something just as precious, and as critical to our security: our sense of commanding moral mission in the world. Affluent corporate executives who tended to adore the president’s tax policies began (about a year ago) to tell me that they had come to dread their trips to Europe and Asia. “I hate having to endure a two-hour lecture before getting down to the sales discussion,” one CEO told me in California this fall.

The war, in other words, has become an impediment to sales. The new generation of American college students is the most internationally minded ever, but their freedom of travel—a cherished right that Americans assume extends to the whole planet—is under threat. Does that matter? Only if we want to lead the world in the 21st century.

The political cultures of Britain and the United States haven’t been this closely intertwined since World War II—and this time, the alliance is fraying in ways it has since before that time. After Tony Blair, the deluge—and then George Bush will truly be a coalition of one.

Some analysts have argued that the vote today is not and cannot be interpreted as a referendum on Iraq. The polls show otherwise: it is the No. 1 issue on the minds of the voters. Other analysts suggest that, even if Democrats take back the Congress, little will change in terms of Iraq policy. There will be no “cut and run” regardless—no immediate cutoff of funding, no decision to set a firm timetable. So the theory goes: nothing changes.

I don’t buy any of that. If the Democrats win big, the world will assume that our policy will change somehow. No “cut and run,” former president Bill Clinton said on the campaign trail, but “stop and think.”

I would tell the Democrats: be careful what you wish for. The world will cheer your arrival, and then you will not only have to “stop and think,” you will have to think and act.