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George W Kerry?
Many US voters may want
George Bush out, but John Kerry may prove to be a devil they already know,
writes US blogger Glenn ReynoldsThe polls in America remain uncertain, and
though Bush seems to be leading there is still a significant chance that
we might wind up with a President John Kerry come January 20. But what would
a President Kerry be like? One interesting aspect of the campaign is that
nobody's really sure.
One theory - which you might call the "George W Kerry" theory after an article by that title in the journal Foreign Policy - is that Kerry will be more like Bush than most of his supporters suppose.
In that article, author Moises Naim argues that the president whom Kerry will most resemble - at least in terms of foreign policy - is the one we've got now, and that, paradoxically, if re-elected President Bush will be more like Kerry than he is today: "If re-elected, Bush will have difficulty sustaining the foreign policies of his first term, whereas a first-term Kerry presidency is bound to emulate some of Bush's more aggressive positions."
There's some truth to this. Presidents are powerful,
but they are also influenced by the world, and neither the world, nor America's
interests in it, change as much as people think from one election cycle
to another. Nixon, remember, ran as a "peace candidate" in 1968,
but was still fighting LBJ's war in 1972. And although George W Bush invaded
Iraq, Bill Clinton threatened to, and even, in 1998, signed the Iraq Liberation
Act, which made regime change official US policy.
That will leave Kerry with a choice of relying on George W Bush's anglosphere-heavy coalition, now strengthened by the Australian prime minister, John Howard's, recent election victory, which has left Howard (along with Tony Blair) far more important to US relations, and world events, than France and Germany anyway.
Kerry's other choice might be to withdraw. Let's call this the "James Earl Kerry" theory, after a column that I wrote a while back suggesting that Kerry might wind up like Jimmy Carter:
I think it's fair to say that if Kerry wins, he'll win based on anti-Bush sentiment among Democrats and swing voters. But although the anybody-but-Bush vote might be good enough to get him into office, once he's elected it will evaporate: the dump-Bush voters will have gotten what they wanted, and they won't have any special reason to support any particular policy of Kerry's - or even Kerry himself ...
So Kerry might find himself elected, but with support that rapidly fades away, leaving him subject to Washington crosswinds and a slave to his party's interest groups. That's pretty much what happened to President Jimmy Carter. He owed his election to backlash over Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon and the lingering residue of Watergate. But that turned out to be an insufficient base on which to govern. Carter's own party (especially, though not only, rivals like Ted Kennedy) cut him to ribbons. We lost ground both at home and abroad as a result.
This was recently echoed by The Economist's "Lexington" column, which observed:
Because the election is largely a referendum on Mr Bush, he can claim, if he wins, a clear mandate for his policies - particularly cutting taxes at home and smiting terrorists abroad. If Mr Kerry wins, the only mandate he will have will be for not being George Bush. In 1993, Mr Clinton had a difficult enough time holding his party together despite laying out a compelling vision of a new Democratic Party. The singularly unvisionary Mr Kerry will have to deal not just with the same struggles (for instance, between healthcare reformers and deficit hawks) but also with a new civil war between the party's rabid Michael Moore faction and its more sensible Tony Blair wing.
That's probably right. (If Bush wins, there will be a struggle within the Republican party, between its libertarian small-government and traditionalist social-conservative wings, too, but it will be more muted and it's unlikely to involve the war, as national security is the glue that holds Bush's coalition together, in the same way that Bush-hatred is holding Kerry's together. The difference is, one is likely to survive the election, and the other isn't.)
Of course, if Kerry can't count on support within his own party, he might reach out to Republicans who support the war.
That produces a scenario that might be named "Lyndon Baines Kerry," after Lyndon Baines Johnson, the last President to brag about his Silver Star. (Though LBJ's medal was less credible than Kerry's).
Like Kerry, LBJ was a domestically oriented politician with foreign affairs problems. Also like Kerry, LBJ seemed anxious to demonstrate his manliness in a variety of settings - with LBJ it was cowboy hats, sexual braggadocio, loud cursing, and constant flaunting of his Silver Star, while with Kerry it's motorcycles, electric guitars, and, er, constant flaunting of his Silver Star.
Would fear of seeming like a wimp lead Kerry to escalate the war on terror rather than pursuing the cut-and-run strategy that many of us expect will mark a Kerry Presidency? Good question. That might actually dispose me to feel better about the prospect of Kerry winning, though I'd prefer a president who pursued war with cold-blooded focus rather than one who pursued it for egotistical reasons.
But in a way, the questions about Kerry say more than their answers might.
Kerry's big problem is that all of these scenarios are plausible, because his approach has been so unfocused that nobody knows where he'll come down in the end. (His talk of a "secret plan to end the war" has even spurred comparisons with Richard Nixon, who made similar promises when he ran in 1968).
And that uncertainty bodes poorly for his prospects
of winning in general. While there may be some people who want "anybody
but Bush", most voters want to vote for somebody - not everybody.