“It’s about the economy, stupid.”
~ James Carville, Clinton Campaign Manager,1992
The American election now underway is the first wartime vote since 1972. Wartime elections tend to be characterized by clear and dramatic voter intentions whether for or against the governing party. Just take a look at the last four: 1972, 1968, 1952 and 1944. Yet so far the number of registered Democrats and Republicans is almost evenly balanced and surveys indicate the electorate will vote pretty much party line. November 2nd may be as much a test of political organization as the policies and purposes of the United States. The reasons for it are quite telling both as to the content of American politics and the characters of its leaders.
Early in his term Bush showed some inclination toward creating a bipartisan approach in government. It made sense considering that he “won” the White House because of the farcical vote count in Florida. Though his early tax cuts were pushed through Congress on straight party line votes, his education reforms passed with Democratic help.
After 9/11 his most important initiatives became laws with bipartisan support. These included creation of the new Department of Homeland Security, the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform and the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate reform legislation. But after the 2002 mid-term elections Bush felt emboldened to govern from the right.
Relying almost completely on Republican votes, he rammed through his third tax cut and the highly controversial Medicare reform that was criticized for failing to address the most crucial health-care issues. These moves dovetailed with the Iraq War and it is on this agenda that he is betting his Presidency.
So why don’t we see a more polarized American electorate? Perhaps the public is ahead of the pundits in understanding that there is less here than meets the eye in the seeming differences between Bush and Kerry.
Each has accused the other of inconsistency. The flip-flops as they have been termed. Yet in fact the reality is that Bush has stuck to his positions only altering his rationale for them to suit his changing Congressional coalitions. Kerry on the other hand, despite his liberal rating from the National Journal, voted for much of the Bush legislation and altered his positions during the campaign in order to build the voting alliances he perceives he needs.
Despite the overheated rhetoric the lines are really quite grey. It is not surprising that the averages from national polls indicate that 90% of both registered Democrats and registered Republicans intent to vote the straight party line. There really is a fog out there.
Kerry has criticized Bush as being too conservative on social issues. Yet Kerry’s own positions don’t resonate with consistency to many liberals. On gay marriage, for example, he says that he personally is opposed to it but favours its legalization if the states, not the Federal government he seeks to lead, approve it. He has voted for affirmative action programs many times, yet now claims that it is “…inherently limited and divisive…”
If at times Kerry comes off as knowledgeable and Bush as simplistic, there are just as many times when Bush comes off as principled and Kerry as ambivalent. Even the National Journal’s rating is deceptive. It reflects only his anti-tax votes since he missed most of the votes on foreign and social policy.
Perhaps this is why so much of the national focus is on the two candidates position on Iraq and America’s global interests. Even the second debate, which was to have centred on domestic issues, spent the first forty minutes on foreign and defense policy. It is here where there are the clearest articulated divisions between Bush and Kerry.
Bush has staked out a radical goal of not only taking the fight to the enemy, but of throwing America’s prestige behind an attempt to implant democratic institutions in the Arab world. Not because he and his supporters have suddenly become the Johnny Appleseeds of freedom. But because Bush and his most significant supporters have concluded that the traditional American policies of cozying up to the region’s dictators has allowed Islamic extremism to seize control and that is destabilizing to all Western interests. As R. Michael Gadbaw, international legal counsel to General Electric and a member of Bush’s trade advisory panel, put it recently. “America’s vested interests are committed to the belief that conducting business in pluralistic environments is more profitable in the long-term than doing business with despots.”
Kerry’s positions on the war seem concentrated on advocating a politically correct construct that will help rebuild American relationships with the U.N. and those nations that stayed out of the Iraq coalition. He has said that he would not commit U.S. troops without U.N. approval. He has painfully pleaded the case that U.N. inspectors were not allowed to do their job in Iraq and Iran even though the Butler Commission demonstrated that Saddam Hussein personally approved Hans Blix. He is committed to have America exercise what he calls “persuasive” power. And most curiously, and most troubling of all, he has called for the development of a “more sensitive” policy toward terror.
To paraphrase Clinton campaign manager Jim Carville’s famous 1992 line, this is why this election is about the war. It is not only the most important issue, but it is the one where there is the greatest divergence in the candidates’ positions. It’s all up to the voters in a few weeks, but at least this time they won’t be able to whine that they didn’t know what they were getting.