As the Democratic National Convention gets under way, the election season shifts into high gear, and summer reruns take over the small screen, it's time to haul out one of the most memorable—and most memorably ineffective—campaign slogans from the past: Republican challenger Barry Goldwater's 1964 insistent promise that he offered "A Choice, Not an Echo" to Democratic incumbent Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Forty years later, we face a nearly perfect inverse of that situation. When it comes to the Republican incumbent George W. Bush, Democratic challenger John F. Kerry offers an echo, not a choice. Despite the loudmouthed bloviations of party loyalists that the other guy is "wrong for America" or a weak-kneed "flip flopper," the plain truth is that such claims are more about the grandiose elaboration of petty differences than they are about carving out bold alternatives to the status quo.
Remember that awful Frank Gorshin episode of Star Trek? The one in which two natives of the planet Cheron, Bele and Lokai, bicker with a hatred usually reserved for the low-stakes slap fights between Bob Novak and James Carville on Crossfire? For most of the hour, the Enterprise crew is puzzled as to why these guys, each of whom has a seemingly identical face that's half-white and half-black, hate each other so much. Only in the last act does it become clear that they belong to different racial groups; one's face is black on the right side and the other's is black on the left. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you're among the roughly 30 percent of Americans who don't identify themselves as a Republican or a Democrat, Election 2004 is a bit too uncomfortably like Stardate 5730.2.
On the big issues, Kerry and Bush are more alike than different, or, same thing, the differences are so arcane as to be nearly meaningless in the larger scheme; you've got to belong to the two men's cults to care overly much about the fine points of their respective theologies. Hence, though he did approve the use of force against Saddam Hussein, Kerry has been critical of George W. Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. Yet his policy prescription going forward is to send even more troops to Iraq, albeit under the command of the United Nations. (For what it's worth, a few weeks ago on Meet The Press, conservative pundit William F. Buckley suggested that even a President Kerry would have gone to war with Iraq, given the intelligence assessments Bush received after 9/11). Kerry has assailed Bush's "irresponsible" tax cuts, but would keep most of them and add other, new ones. While Bush has been rightly criticized for busting the federal budget (above and beyond any costs related to Iraq), no one seriously believes that President Kerry would restrain federal spending. Both, for instance, have pledged to spend ever-increasing amounts of tax money on education and health care.
Kerry, who voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement way back when, has assailed "Benedict Arnold CEOs" and pledged to improve the balance of trade, which means he would likely follow in Bush's footsteps and slap tariffs on steel, lumber, and other politically connected industries. As John Berlau shows in "John Kerry's Monstrous Record on Civil Liberties," it's far from clear exactly how the junior senator from Massachusetts would be better at protecting the privacy of U.S. citizens; indeed, Kerry spent a good chunk of the '90s proposing government-surveillance policies that drew the ire of then-Sen. John Ashcroft. Both candidates are against gay marriage and while each has claimed to represent real American values, no one quite knows what the hell that means.
None of this should be interpreted as a brief for Kerry, the very definition of an undistinguished politician whose lack of a sharply distinctive political program makes it hard for him to differentiate himself from the incumbent (other than perhaps by net worth). Yet to be fair, there are good reasons to fire George W. Bush. Indeed, the best case for a President Kerry may be the divided-government argument, in which a Democratic president is hemmed in by a Republican Congress and vice versa.
That sort of negative appeal may be enough to gain Kerry the White House this fall. What it's unlikely to do, however, is seriously alter the direction of American politics. Or, for that matter, energize the unaffiliated electorate in any sort of significant way. Regardless of who wins in November, those of us waiting for "a choice, not an echo" from the major parties will have to wait for at least four more years.