How High Are the Stakes in 2004?

Not as high as you think


New voters are swarming to register. Likely voters are riveted to the campaign. Three out of four registered voters tell pollsters this year's race is more important than previous presidential elections.

Are they right? Well, all presidential elections are important, and 2004 is no exception. But epochal? No.

In last week's presidential debate, what was striking was not how different the candidates sounded on foreign policy but how alike. President Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry agreed that the leading problems are the Iraq engagement, North Korean nukes, Iranian nukes, and loose nukes. Their main policy disagreement was on whether to add a bilateral component to current six-party talks with North Korea—a tactical nicety. (Either way, the North Koreans are unlikely to disarm.) The only major point of contention was over who will do a better job managing the problems and commitments that the next president, whoever he is, will inherit.

Bush claims that his steadiness and vision can democratize the Islamic world, and that doing so will increase freedom and reduce terrorism. Kerry claims that his credibility and sensitivity will re-engage allies, thereby creating options that are closed to Bush. Both points have elements of truth, but the real-world contrast is not as sharp as the claims suggest.

Bush's "forward strategy of freedom" is a sound and overdue policy change. Kerry is not as outspoken about it, but he won't abandon it, if only because the old policy of supporting Arab tyrannies is a self-evident failure. For his part, Bush has pretty much run out of countries to democratize by force, and out of troops to do it with. Bush sees democratization in the Arab world as the work of decades, not years, and he is right. So the difference is mainly one of emphasis. Regardless of who is elected, democratization will remain—as it long has been—a polestar of U.S. foreign policy, and it will also remain slow going.

Kerry might, as he says, prove better at working with others than Bush has been, and that might create some new diplomatic opportunities. But those would be on the margins. Like Bush, Kerry would find himself struggling to manage ongoing crises and hot spots in Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Kashmir, Israel-Palestine, the Strait of Taiwan, Sudan, and possibly Russia, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia. Neither candidate offers a grand plan for those crises and hot spots, because none exists. The policy, like it or not, will be to muddle through.

Both candidates will prosecute the war on terrorism vigorously; any president would. Which leaves Iraq. Obviously, Kerry, whatever he may say, is less committed to that effort than is Bush. If Kerry were simply to cut and run, however, Iraq would collapse into anarchy or civil war, creating a new terrorist haven and destabilizing the whole region. Kerry would be blamed for the debacle, and he knows it.

Indeed, he might have less flexibility than Bush does to draw down U.S. forces, because congressional Republicans would give Kerry much more grief over a withdrawal than congressional Democrats would give Bush. In any case, if Kerry is elected, Iraq will become his mess, just as Lyndon Johnson's mess in Vietnam became Nixon's.

Domestic policy is harder to foresee, at least if Bush is re-elected. Kerry touts a moderately ambitious plan to expand health care coverage, a policy that certainly distinguishes him from Bush; but, if victorious, he would face a wholly or partially Republican Congress, which would scale back his reforms, Republicanize them, or both. Congressional Republicans will also have something to say about Kerry's plans to lift Bush's partial ban on fetal stem-cell research, to raise taxes on corporations that go offshore, and so forth.

Kerry is an incrementalist by nature, cautious almost to a fault. Bush, by comparison, is the proverbial bull in the china shop. He hates what he calls "small ball" and seems to believe that a good offense is the only defense. He is capable of restraint—for instance, in 2001, when China forced down an American spy plane—but he seems most in his element when pile-driving an initiative that he thinks will redefine the national or global debate. For his second four years, he proposes a fundamental reform of Social Security (adding private accounts) and a fundamental tax reform (unspecified). No small ball there.

Democrats worry that, in a second term, Bush might do to them what Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair did to the British Conservative Party and what FDR did to the Republicans. Republican activists have a plan for hegemony: By introducing elements of personal choice and individual ownership into paternalistic programs such as Social Security, they hope to undercut popular demand for Big Government and thus for Democratic politicians. "The modern Democratic Party cannot survive the re-election of President George W. Bush and another four years of Republican control of both Congress and the White House," writes Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and a Republican strategist, in the September issue of The Washington Monthly. "No brag. Just fact."

Not quite fact. If the Democrats win the Senate, Bush will need to deal with them, and both sides will be forced toward the center—a very good thing after two traumatically divisive years of one-party rule in a two-party nation.

The really interesting question is how Bush would behave if, as Norquist posits, the Republicans were to retain control of both Senate and House. Then Bush would have a choice. He could be either the first President Reagan or the second.

Reagan's two administrations were, on balance, quite different. In his first term (especially the first year, when Republicans effectively controlled both chambers of Congress), Reagan drove the defense budget way up and taxes way down, broke the government's finances, cut deeper into federal domestic programs than any other administration ever had, smashed the air traffic controllers' union, abandoned the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, and ended detente with the Soviets. In his second term, in marked contrast, he let the defense budget deflate, settled for restraining rather than reducing domestic government, and established an unprecedented partnership with the Soviets. His signature second-term initiative was a bipartisan tax overhaul first floated by Democrats.

One president, two presidencies. Reagan's worldview never changed, but the world did. The Soviets buckled. The Democrats stopped being overawed. The status quo was Reagan's to defend. Confrontation now looked counterproductive. And so Reagan turned from revolution to consolidation.

Bush might choose the same path. After another squeaker election, Bush might, uncharacteristically, resist the temptation to overreach. Party identification is split, with perhaps a slight Democratic edge. Control of the Senate, the governorships, and the state legislatures is closely divided, with a slight Republican edge. The House would also be close if not for gerrymandering. If, in this 50-50 nation, a narrowly re-elected Bush and a right-wing Republican Congress tried to govern as if half the country did not exist, they would court a backlash that might marginalize themselves rather than the Democrats.

A Republican attempt at one-party reform of Social Security, the country's biggest and most cherished government program, could do to Republicans in 2006 what the attempt at a one-party health-care reform did to the Democrats in 1994—and then some. A one-party tax reform would turn into a Christmas tree as Republican senators demanded to be bought off one by one.

A second-term Bush might conclude that the strategic terrain no longer favored confrontation. Perhaps, to some degree, he already has. In his acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican convention, Bush sounded like Reagan: "We resolve to be the party not of repose but of reform. We will write not footnotes but chapters in the American story." In his acceptance speech at this year's convention, he sounded more like Bill Clinton: "We will double the number of people served by our principal job-training program and increase funding for community colleges," and so on.

A new Bush? Not really. But when times change, politicians adapt. Barring another world-shaking calamity, in the next four years neither Bush nor Kerry will enjoy anything like the running room that 9/11 gave Bush in his first term. The 2004 election looks less like 1980 than like 1960, a year when the candidates differed more in style than in substance. Kerry's election, like John F. Kennedy's, would set a new tone, but not a new direction.