It is widely believed that the voters have only two choices nationwide in the presidential election next month. This is incorrect. There are three choices:
A) President Bush
B) Sen. John Kerry
That observation is occasioned by one of the countless e-mails I received from my fans last week. Well, not technically countless. Two. And maybe not precisely from fans. One e-mailer asked what I was smoking. The other was my father, an archetypal independent voter in a competitive state (Arizona). He said he would not vote for Bush: "He was right about invading Iraq. He was grossly negligent in preparing for the after-war. I can't trust him not to make that type of mistake again. Equally negligent has been his running up of the national debt. It's unconscionable. He has been great on Israel."
But Kerry? No sale. "I won't vote for Kerry. I think his radical Left supporters—a small but very influential percentage—might have Kerry doing harm to this country. I could never support a person who has those kinds of supporters. Yeah, I know about the radical Right who are Bush supporters. My view on that is that they are inflicting harm, but the harm can be undone in future years."
There are probably a lot of people out there like my father: Swimmers—SWing, Independent, and Moderate voters. Partisans have no trouble making up their mind this year. But for Swimmers, these are desperate times.
I am no romantic about the American presidency. Some people think a president should inspire the nation and do great things. Me, I think greatness is nice, but first and foremost, a president needs to be a safe pair of hands. A president is a safe pair of hands if he (someday, she) copes adeptly with a crisis and otherwise solves more problems than he creates, or at least avoids major mistakes. People say this is setting the bar too low. Actually, it is setting the bar quite high. In politics, wisdom and restraint are harder to come by than vision and ambition.
By my lights, the best president of the last 40 years is George Bush. That is, George H.W. Bush. Had he done nothing but close out the Cold War smoothly and peacefully, not only reuniting Germany but doing so within NATO, that alone would have earned him history's esteem. But he also broke the back of the budget deficit, cleaned up the savings and loan mess, closed out Ronald Reagan's failed Central America policy, adroitly handled the Soviet coup (a knife-edge moment in world history), and waged the Persian Gulf War with astonishing diplomatic, military, and even financial finesse.
Then he lost his bid for re-election. That, it seems, is the part of his record that his son best remembers.
Bush 43 seems to have come to office determined to use his father as a negative role model. He has little of his father's diplomatic skill or instinct for moderation. On the other hand, the younger Bush is a more talented politician than his father was, and he has a quick, decisive mind and a knack for steering straight in a storm. Those qualities served him well after 9/11, which will surely be remembered as his finest hour. Bush showed greatness then.
But the same qualities that served Bush well in crisis have made him prone to excess in ordinary times. He embraced a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage: a radical and unnecessary alternative that, by federalizing what ought to be a state issue, pours gasoline on the fires of the culture war. (He could have instead doused the flames by urging an amendment that would leave the issue to the states, something that other Republicans suggested doing.)
Bush claimed the power to seize American citizens and hold them incommunicado without allowing them meaningful access to the judicial system—in effect, asserting that he can declare ad hoc martial law at will. Detentions may well be necessary, but a wiser chief executive would also have thought carefully about the powers he needed and then asked Congress to give them to him, rather than just making up law on the fly, awaiting a Supreme Court rebuke, and then making up more law on the fly.
Bush's macroeconomic policy is not as reckless as Richard Nixon's, but it's close. Undoubtedly, the country needed some economic stimulus in 2001, and undoubtedly, the 9/11 emergency required unexpected spending; but Bush has shown no interest in modulating tax cuts or restraining spending increases. He has steered the country toward large deficits at the time when that course is least affordable, as the Baby Boom retirement costs begin to mount. That is a blow to America's long-term strength.
Then there is Iraq, a complicated case. Invading Iraq was not a mistake; it was a gamble. Not invading Iraq, and thus leaving Saddam and his demented sons in power while sanctions crumbled, would also have been a gamble. No one knew, two years ago, that Saddam was hiding weakness, not weapons. And history has not yet judged Bush's wager. Events seem to have taken a turn for the better in Iraq lately; the gamble may yet pay off in the form of a stable, democratic American ally in the heart of the Arab world.
But a president who gambles should gamble prudently. Subsequent revelations and events suggest that Bush was less prudent than a president should be. The intelligence on which he based his decision appears to have been shockingly sketchy, and the occupation was ill-prepared and poorly executed. Bush cannot be fairly blamed for taking a calculated risk in a treacherous situation. He can be blamed for not calculating more carefully.
Voters who seek a safe pair of hands thus find disappointment in Bush. They then look to Kerry. They see not recklessness but a surplus of caution.
Kerry criticizes Bush's deficits but renounces the measures that would be necessary to fix them. According to the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan fiscal-responsibility group, Bush's proposals would increase the deficit by about $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years, whereas Kerry's would increase the deficit by about—$1.3 trillion. Kerry's supporters argue their man is more likely to be fiscally responsible once in office, but that is thin gruel, given Kerry's face-to-camera promise not to raise taxes on the middle class, ever.
In Iraq, America faces its biggest and most draining foreign-policy commitment since Vietnam, and the largest and most difficult pacification effort since the Philippines a century ago. Kerry's plan for Iraq? Not to be George W. Bush. That's it.
Writing in this space four years ago, I said that the biggest policy difference between Bush and his Democratic opponent was that Bush might reform Social Security, which the Democrat had vowed not to do. Unfortunately, I'm still right, four years later. Having failed to deliver on Social Security reform, Bush is still promising. The Democrats are still promising to ignore the problem.
If Bush has shown anything, it is that the country needs a new legal process for detaining potential terrorists without disemboweling the Constitution. Kerry has evinced no interest in the issue. In general, he proposes few fresh ideas for solving the problems that Bush has variously created, exacerbated, been stuck with, and finessed. He offers many "plans," but no equivalent of Bill Clinton's "end welfare as we know it."
And what are Kerry's core beliefs? If you shake him awake at 3 a.m., what are the two or three things he knows deep down, the way Reagan knew that Big Government and Communism were bad and Bush knows that Al Qaeda and its allies have launched a global insurgency on behalf of a virulent totalitarian doctrine? I don't know.
There is nothing wrong with Kerry's senatorial "flip-flops." Maneuvering is what senators do. More disturbing has been his irresolution on Iraq since becoming a presidential candidate. Most disturbing of all is that, with only days to go before the election, I still don't feel I have a handle on what he is really all about. Perhaps Kerry is the scion of Dukakism, the doctrine that the election is about competence, not ideology. But Kerry is running for president, not city manager.
I don't believe he is an empty suit. I just wish I knew what was inside the suit. I can understand why my father fears that Kerry might be captured by the Left.
Bush is a dynamic leader, but he lacks what a president most needs: guardrails. Kerry has guardrails, but where is the road? A dispiriting choice.
What's a Swimmer to do? It helps to remember that the presidency matters a lot, but not quite as much as most people think. And that muddling through usually works out passably well. And that it is always darkest before the dawn, and you'll never walk alone, and tomorrow is another day.
Think on that. And have a Prozac.