After the Florida debacle in 2000, this year's presidential campaign was bound to be unusual, no matter what else was happening in the world. But, of course, there is plenty else happening. We live in a different world than we did in November 2000—a world where, as we watch the party conventions in Boston and New York, one of the main concerns is the threat of terrorism.
In the wake of Election 2000, Election 2004 was also bound to be nasty. There are many people who passionately believe that George W. Bush "stole" the election and that we have an unelected right-wing president installed by a right-leaning Supreme Court. Never mind that several studies have found that Bush would have won the recount under virtually every possible scenario. Never mind that the Democratic dissenters on the Florida State Supreme Court made a compelling argument that the recount requested by Al Gore was illegal.
The attacks of Sept. 11 briefly brought the country together—but now, we are more polarized than ever. If Bush really wanted to be "a uniter, not a divider," he failed spectacularly. But it's hard to tell if this is his fault, or if anything he could have done would have changed the minds of those who saw him from the start as an illegitimate president.
And so, for many people the election is primarily a referendum on Bush. John Kerry, the Democratic contender, is generally not a man who inspires passionate devotion. The passion among Democrats is against Bush, not for Kerry. Kerry is "anyone but Bush."
In fairness, it should be noted that if Gore had prevailed in the election dispute four years ago, the roles, it is almost certain, would have been neatly reversed. The Republicans would have been the ones still screaming about the stolen election. Gore-hating would have been the new national sport just like Bush-hating is now, only on the other side of the political divide. We don't know how differently Gore would have handled the war on terror, but it's fairly certain that the attack on him would have been just as vehement.
Looking at both candidates and both parties, I don't find much to inspire me. I don't believe Bush is evil incarnate, and the fact that Kerry is not Bush is not enough to make me want to vote for him. I do believe that Bush and his team have badly mishandled many aspects of the war on terror. The decision to go to war in Iraq may or may not have been right (in my view, the jury is still out), but it is clear that the administration was catastrophically unprepared to handle the war's aftermath, to win the peace after winning the war. We are now left with a mess in Iraq that is still costing lives—the lives of Americans, our allies, and innocent Iraqis. We have squandered the considerable sympathy we have had among the Iraqi people—even though, with no weapons of mass destruction found, the liberation of Iraqis from a brutal regime of state terrorism is the strongest justification left for the war.
Add to this the fact that Al Qaeda has not been neutralized, and the situation in Afghanistan remains chaotic enough that it may well re-emerge as a hotbed of terror. And add to this the fact that Bush has never offered an adequate admission of mistakes and missteps to the American people.
Too bad that, on the other side, Kerry has yet to offer a coherent vision of what he would do to start resolving these problems. How many Americans can truly trust Kerry's criticism of Bush to be motivated by principle or national interest rather than partisanship and political gain?
As the election nears, we have no idea what kind of threats and crises we will face in the next four years. More than ever, we need strong, intelligent, trustworthy leadership. Too bad there isn't any in sight.