Former American President George H.W. Bush, as he was losing his campaign for re-election to Bill Clinton way back in 1992, famously complained that try though he might, he couldn’t compete with Clinton on “the vision thing”.
In that election, Bush, a man who had served his country for fifty years and served with honour as President, was competing against a young Clinton who had dodged service in the Vietnam war, and, controversially for the time, had basically admitted to smoking cannabis, while dogged by allegations that he was serially unfaithful to his wife. To Bush, it shouldn’t have been a contest at all. But Clinton was able to inspire the electorate with a vision for the future that the older man simply could not match.
The next Irish election will be a contest between two candidates who are, in many ways, analogous. In one corner, Micheál Martin. First elected in 1989, he has been in the Dáil for 30 years, under no less than four Fianna Fáil leaders before him. The party has only had eight leaders in total, so he’s seen more of its history than any leader before him. He has served as a minister in five cabinets, and has a list of achievements, for good or ill, to his name.
In the other corner is the Taoiseach, who entered the Dáil in 2007, and is nineteen years younger. Though he spent several years as Minister for Health, and then Social Protection, under Enda Kenny, it’s a challenge to remember anything at all that he achieved in either office. Go on, try it. Try and remember one thing of significance he did as a Minister.
He presides over a Government that has the worst figures on health, and housing, in the modern history of the state. His Government is dogged by controversies on immigration, capital projects, and more.
And yet, this weekend, the Sunday Times opinion poll showed the Fine Gael lead increasing:
The level of dissatisfaction in the country is very high. The headline economic figures aren’t bad, but they are very misleading. Ireland’s GDP is massively inflated by our status as a tax haven, but the reality for many families, even the relatively well off, is that the standard of living they could have aspired to just 20 years ago is increasingly out of reach, especially in Dublin, where more than a quarter of the population live.
At the last election, the Fine Gael vote collapsed. Since then, the party has all but ignored the economic concerns of the public in favour of focusing on a series of social issues, in an attempt to secure the loyalty of the larger side in the culture wars. The marriage and abortion laws have been changed, to great popular media acclaim. The country has embarked on a long march of introspection, lead by the Government, carefully examining, and picking at, every scab on the national conscience. Blame for the misery of the people has been consistently, and successfully, transferred from the ruling classes of the present to the ruling classes of the past. Revelling in our former oppression has become a national sport, with the almost weekly creation of new classes of victim.
The problem, of course, is that none of that has addressed the fundamental causes of national dissatisfaction. There is only so long you can keep telling people to ignore their inability to buy a home, or to put up with the emigration of their children, and to focus instead on the sins of the Bishops or the crimes of those who wrote the constitution. Another referendum – this time to get rid of the reference to women in the home – won’t actually improve the status of women. It’s just another victory over the straw demons of the national imagination.
The genuine and real anger of the people will eventually lead to them looking for others to blame. If you want to understand the growth of anti-immigration sentiment, look no further.
And where, in all of this, is the official opposition? And where, above all else, is their vision?
The path to winning the next General Election is not difficult to chart. The party that offers the public some genuine hope for themselves will win. Who will offer my children the life I want for them? Who will give them hope that if they work hard, they will own their own home, and have a decent amount of leisure time, and schools for the children, and a hospital bed when they get sick?
Varadkar, for all his flaws, is offering a vision for the country. It’s a vision based on an idea of who we are – the most tolerant, liberal, compassionate society on earth. A country that looks after people and talks about things.
The fact that it is an entirely empty vision, or a deeply unsatisfying one for so many doesn’t really matter. What’s Fianna Fáil offering? What’s its vision for the country? Fine Gael is great at telling us what kind of people it wants us to be. Fianna Fáil needs to be able to tell us what kind of chances it could give us, and how.
Until then, Varadkar will keep getting away with it.