Some Potentially Positive Developments from a Disastrous Election

No progressive should be happy with the results of the presidential election. However, it is hard to predict what the longer-term impact on American politics of a particular presidential election result might be. For example, it would have felt terrible at the time if ‘ despite Vietnam and Watergate ‘ Gerald Ford had managed to defeat Jimmy Carter in the close election of 1976. However, if Ford had stayed in office for another four years, the Republicans would have been blamed for the recession and the Iranian hostage crisis of subsequent years and the Democrats would have almost certainly won in 1980, thereby sparing the nation and the world the consequences of the eight years of the Reagan administration.

As a result, we should keep in mind that there are a number of ways that Bush’s re-election could conceivably prove more beneficial in the longer term than had Kerry been elected.

As Kerry made clear during his campaign, he did not support a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq any time soon. As a result, he would have been saddled with a bloody unwinnable counter-insurgency war that he had helped make possible through his October 2002 vote authorizing the invasion. Like President Lyndon Johnson, he would have found himself in the untenable position of being attacked from the left for not withdrawing and attacked from the right for not escalating. If Kerry was smart enough to pull out, any subsequent bad news from Iraq would have been blamed on the Democrats for having ‘lost’ that country. Any terrorist attack that might hit the United States subsequently would have been blamed on the Democrats for not showing sufficient resolve against the ‘terrorists’ in Iraq. Given that the situation in Iraq will almost certainly worsen over the next few years, it may be better that the Republicans get saddled with the tragedy that was largely of their making.

A related factor is that, given the reticence of members of Congress to criticize the president of their own party during wartime, Congressional Democrats will be far more likely to call for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq under a Bush administration than under a Kerry administration. (We must make sure that they actually do. Those representing the more liberal districts who continue to support Bush’s war will need to be challenged in the 2006 Democratic primaries and/or be challenged by a strong Green Party or other opponent in the general elections.)

Another potentially positive development is that the Europeans, Canadians, and others ‘ alienated by the Bush administration’s cowboy mentality ‘ will be far more likely to assert a more independent foreign policy under Bush than under Kerry, even though ‘ despite his calls for more multilateralism and alliance-building ‘ Kerry largely accepted the Bush Doctrine and American unilateralism.

In addition to voting to authorize the illegal, unnecessary and disastrous invasion of Iraq, Kerry supported increased military spending, denounced the International Court of Justice, supported the rightist Israeli government’s illegal colonization and creeping annexation of the occupied West Bank, and threatened Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. This is not to say that ‘Kerry would have been just as bad as Bush.’ However, the more erudite and diplomatic Kerry would have brought more respectability to such dangerous policies than the inarticulate and arrogant Bush and would have therefore made it more difficult for foreign leaders to openly challenge American policy.

Finally, it is important to recognize ‘ and to challenge those who suggest otherwise ‘ that Kerry lost because he was too far to the right, not because he was too far to the left. This gives the progressive wing of the Democratic Party the opportunity to take control.

It is pretty clear now that John Kerry lost the election slightly over two years ago, the day he voted to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Just prior to the early primaries and caucuses earlier this year, Kerry’s support for the war had resulted in him falling far behind in the polls. Thanks to his relentless attacks against Howard Dean and other Democratic war opponents, however, he was able to secure the nomination.

This created a fall election not unlike Humphrey-Nixon race of 1968, where ‘ despite a burgeoning anti-war movement ‘ both parties decided to nominate men who promised to continue prosecuting an illegal, immoral, and ultimately unwinnable war. Not surprisingly, the election had the identical result of a narrow Republican victory, made possible in part because many progressives who would have otherwise worked hard for a Democratic victory instead decided to not actively become involved in the campaign. The Kerry nomination also alienated many anti-war conservatives who would have voted Democratic if the party had nominated an anti-war candidate, but ‘ seeing little difference between the two regarding Iraq ‘ ended up sticking with the Republicans.

In Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack, which closely examines the inside of the Bush White House, he quotes political consultant Karl Rove saying last spring that ‘The good news for us is that Dean is not the nominee.’ He describes how Dean, who opposed the war from the beginning, could have resulted in a ‘potent face-off with Bush.’ However, Rove was quite pleased to note that not only had Kerry voted to authorize the invasion, the Democratic nominee ‘ like Bush ‘ had falsely claimed that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction that threatened American security.

Woodward describes Bush’s chief campaign strategist reading over a compilation of Kerry’s statements on Iraq:
Rove’s eyebrows were jumping up and down as he read. ‘My personal favorite,’ he said, quoting Kerry on March 19, 2003, the day the war started: ‘I think Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction are a threat, and that why I voted to hold him accountable and to make certain that we disarm him.’

‘Oh yeah!’ Rove shouted. And that had been on National Public Radio! He had it all on tape. So here is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee saying that Saddam had the stuff. And the Bush campaign would be as follows: ‘You’re looking at the same intelligence the president is and arriving at the same conclusion, and if you accuse him of misleading the American people, what were you doing? Are you saying, I was duped?’
Woodward further described how Rove tested a series of potential ads showing clips of Kerry’s earlier pro-war statements alongside Kerry’s later anti-war statements and how the reaction of the focus groups was ‘What a hypocrite!’

As Woodward described it, ‘Rove believed they had Kerry pretty cold on voting to give the president a green light for war and then backing off when he didn’t like the aftermath or saw a political opportunity.’ Furthermore, Woodward observed, ‘Rove sounded as if he believed they could inoculate the president on the Iraq War in a campaign with Kerry.’

This, of course, is exactly what happened. If the Democrats had given Dean or some other anti-war candidate the nomination, the focus of the fall’s campaign would have been on the lies that got the United States into Iraq and the debacle it had become. Bush would have found himself on the defensive. Instead, the Democrats chose to nominate someone who had supported the war when it was popular and began criticizing it only when it became less so, so the focus of the campaign became ‘flip-flopping’ and related issues of ‘character’ and ‘leadership.’

The Democrats lost because they seemed to have the idea that they could somehow immunize themselves from being attacked for being weak on national security if they nominated an opportunistic centrist rather than a principled progressive. Yet, despite Kerry’s embrace of the Bush Doctrine and his militaristic world view, he lost anyway. Kerry’s defeat should finally teach the Democrats the lesson that the only hope for their party is to move in a more progressive direction.

The Republicans have come to dominate the presidency and both houses of Congress because they were able to demonstrate vision and leadership by unapologetically advocating positions they believed in, even though they were out of the political mainstream. Hopefully, the Democrats will finally recognize that they too will become the majority party once again only if they reverse their center-right policies and instead articulate a bold progressive vision that can excite the American voter.