The war for the vote

The 2004 American presidential election, at first blush, looks like a replay of its predecessor. Americans are divided sharply between Democrats ardent to “stop Bush,” and Republicans determined to “stop the liberals.” It is almost as if 9/11 never happened! That should not surprise.

Foreign policy issues have rarely decided presidential elections, much less so those for Congress. The election years 1952, 1968, and 1980 stand out because international crises reinforced electoral views of incumbent weakness amidst economic trouble.

Moreover, successful foreign policy hardly guarantees victory. Carter’s Camp David Accords did not help him against Reagan. The first President Bush’s victories in the Cold and Gulf Wars only made it safe to elect Clinton. Winning abroad never offsets a losing economy. Americans vote their futures. Usually this means voting their economic prospects unless something very big convinces them otherwise.

The war on terrorism may indeed fit that bill. It will be a referendum on George W. Bush’s transformation from a “domestic president” into a war leader with far-reaching objectives. These include continuing military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq; the creation of democracies in both places; the patronage of a Palestinian state if Arafat can be displaced; and a “forward strategy for democracy” throughout the Middle East. When you add the disarming of remaining rogue states with WMD potential (Libya, Iran, North Korea, and Syria), a new non-proliferation regime, and the reconciliation of India-Pakistan, well, the cup overfloweth. Finally, Bush has begun ambitious changes in US military force structures, NATO relationships, homeland defense, and the judicial war on terrorism.

For Bush, then, the die is cast. If the war on terror goes reasonably well, it will be proof of his leadership. But “going well” is a daunting task. It means an apparently successful transition in Iraq; the capture or neutralizing of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban remnants; no disastrous incidents badly handled either abroad or at home. Bush also faces another hurdle. Last summer’s quarrel with the CIA, reinforced by the apparent absence of WMD stocks in Iraq, has shaken confidence in the White House and US intelligence. Further revelations from the 9/11 commission might deepen distrust, inflicting Bush with a “credibility gap,” just enough to swing critical undecided votes into the other column.

Whether the war works against the Republicans also depends on the Democrats who must overcome a 30-year reputation for weakness and indecision on national security. Senator Kerry, the likely nominee, carries his own burden. A rerun of “Veterans against the Vietnam War,” reviving the rancor of the ’68 generation, will ring hollow with an electorate bent on the future. Moreover, Kerry’s recent record chronicles confusion. He voted against the 1991 Gulf War; for the war on Iraq; and then against the $87 billion supplemental to reconstruct Afghanistan and Iraq. These are not easily reconciled. If Kerry claims he was misled by “sexed-up” intelligence to support the Iraq War, he raises a charge he may not be able to prove while appearing a dupe, thus losing both ways.

Kerry faces the polarizing choices of his primary rivals: Dean’s repudiation of the war versus Lieberman’s support. Will Kerry be a “Carter Democrat” or a “Clinton Democrat,” focusing on the war or on the economy? The Democrats thus face a referendum of their own on foreign policy.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not likely to agitate the 2004 election much, barring a catastrophic event. Most Americans regard Israel as a friend and Arafat as a terrorist. Bush did not even mention the issue in his recent State of the Union address and his support for Israel will increase his percentage of the Jewish vote. Once again, the most important fact will be the fundamental closeness of the race before international events are considered.

In sum, foreign policy could provide the margin in an election closely fought between roughly equal bases. If the war goes well and the economy moves steadily forward then Bush wins. If one or the other appears stalled, suspicions of Bush’s use of intelligence, for example, will give hesitant voters enough reason to vote for the Democrats. But this, in turn, will depend upon whether the Democratic nominee can offer a convincing position on the war.

The president remains more vulnerable to Lieberman’s approach than to Dean’s, and least vulnerable to partisan howls of betrayal that offer no alternative to fighting the war.