Do Russians know anything about the U.S. election campaign? And if they do, who would they vote for? New questions, these, a surprise to me as I did the mandatory book tour, talk-radio circuit, hop-skip-jumping from New York to Los Angeles via Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Seattle and . . . and . . . and. Past experience told me that Americans didn't care what Russians thought in general, let alone about White House candidates. Times have changed.
Yes, Russians know about the campaign. They always knew, even in the bad old days of Leonid Brezhnev and before. The reports they got from their media were slanted in favor of the incumbent, which was only natural for a political system that abhorred choice. Now Russians get a variety of slants. By comparing them, they can form a not unrealistic picture of the American presidential election campaign--which is about as good as it gets anywhere, not just in Russia.
So who would the Russians vote for?
There are two ways of answering that question, the first of which is straightforward and not very intriguing. They would vote for George Bush. First, because they know very little about the other candidates. Second, because over the past four years relations between Russia and the United States have continued to improve and Russians see this as a result of Bush's "new world order" policy. All fairly obvious and not very stimulating.
But let's transpose the candidates to Russian soil. What then? Who would the Russians support?
Not Bush. Economic problems would be part of the reason, but not the main one. The President's reluctance to take a position--his tendency to go with whatever current that he perceives as being strongest, be it from the left or the right--would turn Russians off. That was Mikhail Gorbachev's weakness, and that is finally why he lost the country's support, the magnitude of his achievements notwithstanding. And let's face it; Bush is no Gorbachev. Russians call this kind of vacillation "bobbing around like a piece of cork in a sewer," only they often use a stronger word than cork.
What about Pat Buchanan? Last June, during the Russian presidential elections that brought Boris Yeltsin to power, one Vladimir Zhirinovsky came in third with 7% of the popular vote. Zhirinovsky is a Russian . . . ah, nativist. He's for Russia and Russians first. He doesn't like Jews or blacks and has no problem saying so. He is xenophobic. He is for the old values--Mother Russia, the Orthodox Church, law and order. Woman's place is in the home, abortion is an abomination, gays should stay in the closet or go to jail. Zhirinovsky plays to fear, to prejudice, to hurt pride and hatred. Today, like Buchanan, he would get about 30% of the vote.
Neither Bill Clinton nor Paul Tsongas could hope to move into the Kremlin, but for different reasons.
Russians would be indifferent to Gov. Clinton's possibly having cheated on his spouse; most would applaud his having escaped the draft and service, in, say, Afghanistan. But they would perceive him as being too slick, too Establishment, too much the professional politician created by the established system.
Tsongas? A nice man. An honest man. But lacking. Borscht without sour cream--looks good, may even be good for you, but is bland in taste.
That certainly does not apply to Jerry Brown. The Establishment is corrupt and crooked? You bet! We should throw the bums out? We hear you! But come to think of it, we've heard it before. One way or another, that's what all candidates say before they are elected. But once they get to office, their tune changes. Look at Yeltsin. He used to eat up the bureaucrats and spit 'em out, but now he's letting independent-minded people go and bringing in more and more of the old-style apparatchiks. Would Brown be any different?
So who would the people of Russia elect? Buchanan and Brown would probably do best, with Brown having the edge. But even so, he wouldn't win--at least, not in the conventional sense.
The Russian constitution specifies that if less than 50% of all eligible voters go to the polls in an election, it will be considered invalid. In that case, a new election will be called, with new candidates. I believe that the majority of Russian voters would take advantage of that clause and stay at home, forcing new elections and a better selection of choices.