Policies, Presidents and the 2004 US Elections

In the wake of 9/11, and with the US-led occupation of Iraq grinding on with almost daily Iraqi and American deaths, the US electorate is riveted on US foreign policy. Or is it?

Vermont Governor Howard Dean built his presidential campaign around three central issues. One of them was opposing the US-led war in Iraq in favor of a United Nations-led process. A year ago, the other major candidates essentially supported the president’s war. Although Governor Dean has dropped out of the race with a half million dollars campaign debt, his Iraq policy has been adopted by Senators John Kerry and John Edwards who now lead the race.

But is the US electorate watching? Maybe. Maybe not. Some say that the US electorate is somewhat sick of hearing about foreign policy, Iraq, Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. But with US deaths mounting in Iraq despite the fact that Saddam is behind bars, voters–”and many who voted for Bush last time–”may be asking themselves tough questions about whether Saddam’s capture has made them, or our troops, safer.

In short, this may be the first presidential election in years when foreign policy moves from being “retail politics” to being part of “wholesale politics.” What does that mean? When I was national director for Ethnic American Outreach for Gore in the 2000 presidential campaign, every ethnic group under the sun–”from Arabs to Armenians and from Germans to Greeks–”had specific micro-policy issues that mattered. The Gore and Bush campaigns were busy meeting with each and every ethnic group and writing policy papers trying to match their policies to the needs of the ethnic communities. That was retail politics.

This time around, it’s going to be different. Wholesale politics. Foreign policy does matter. Every American is watching. Whether the economy matters more or matters less is not the issue. The issue is that foreign policy is center stage and there is no escaping it. President Bush and the Democratic nominee will have to debate three central issues, the economy, Iraq and terrorism, and whatever the issue or scandal of the day is at that moment.

Iraq just won’t go away. As Americans, we’ve got too many troops involved, too many deaths under our belts, and Osama bin Laden unaccounted for. Bush may argue that Americans are safer today, but I would counter that Americans have been made to feel more afraid. I would also add that Americans may be growing weary of being afraid as well.

The Bush administration will try to pull troops out of Iraq, go home and declare victory, and put Saddam on trial. That may help, but it won’t allow them to duck the issue. Some US troops will have to stay. And likely, tragically, our troops will continue to die because Iraq is still a lawless mess. With this backdrop, the Saddam trial is unlikely to make a large difference in how Americans feel about themselves.

I’m willing to bet that when Americans go to the ballot box in about eight months, many will shift their votes away from George Bush and to the likely nominee–”who actually has experience as a decorated war veteran–”John Kerry. Who will they be? Moderate American voters who had family or friends killed, injured or just serving in Iraq. And they number in the hundreds of thousands. Moderate American voters who sense that the Bush administration is making more enemies than friends for us in the world–”and who don’t want more enemies.

I think it is a fairly safe assumption to say that these Americans will switch their vote away from George Bush. The massive voting taking place in many states for the Democratic primary is an indication both that the center wants to play a role in choosing the Democratic nominee and that the Democratic base will be energized for the 2004 presidential election. So yes, despite all the flag waving we’ve seen over the past few years, I believe that George Bush gets less votes than he did in 2000.

Will I be right? I was willing to bet on Al Gore in 2000. I drove down to Nashville and spent September and October and November working for peanuts and eating cheap tacos for lunch and dinner because I was willing to do what I could to keep George Bush out of the White House, and I went back home with my tail between my legs. So you may not want to take my advice. But then again, Al Gore did get the most votes in 2000. And I’m willing to bet that so will John Kerry in 2004. The question is, will he become the president of the United States of America? And that is a question that I cannot answer.