In four years, some things have not changed. As in 2000, this year’s presidential election will likely be decided by a razor-thin margin. The key states still include Ohio and Florida, and Ralph Nader still threatens to be a spoiler for the Democrats.
But the contest between President George W. Bush ’68 and Sen. John F. Kerry ’66 is occurring under far different — and in many ways, far less hopeful — circumstances than did Bush’s first campaign. Four years ago, then-Gov. Bush and Vice President Gore debated over how to spend a budget surplus. They proposed new directions for foreign policy in a world where the United States seemed to face few direct threats, and they offered economic plans to continue nearly a decade of job growth.
Today, the key questions voters are asking of Bush and Kerry reflect a more insecure world: Can you keep us safe from terrorism? Can you prevent Iraq from collapsing into chaos? Can you close record budget deficits and restart a lagging economy? Can you bring consensus and civility to a deeply divided nation?
Many of these concerns have emerged due to events outside President Bush’s control, and in particular, the attacks of Sept. 11. But much of the blame for the country’s direction lies with the president. Bush the candidate promised to be a “uniter, not a divider.” He pledged to bring compassion as well as conservatism to the White House, and to engage in a foreign policy that is strong but humble. As his first term nears its close, those are promises he has left unfulfilled.
To his credit, the president can count some successes on his watch. Bush’s immediate response to the Sept. 11 attacks helped unify the nation, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan speedily overthrew the Taliban. At a time when many Americans’ sense of security was shattered, Bush demonstrated two of his greatest strengths: his ability to connect with the American people and his single-minded resolve on the issues he cares most about.
But on balance, President Bush has failed. Both at home and abroad, he has engaged in a highly partisan agenda without expressing any interest in debating its merits or considering its costs. The result is a deeply divided nation and a world increasingly hostile to America and its interests.
In Iraq, the president ignored voices both inside and outside the administration that warned about the need for a plan to win the peace and questioned evidence of weapons of mass destruction. He offered an ambitious plan to reform the Middle East without any sense of how difficult or costly the project might be. And he has left the military dangerously overstretched — a frightening prospect given the challenges that loom in North Korea, Iran and elsewhere.
At home, even as job creation stagnated, tuition and health care costs increased and the surplus vanished, Bush chose one domestic priority — tax cuts that favor the richest Americans. His administration has expressed a frightening disregard for civil liberties and a disheartening tendency to shut out foreign students from American universities. On issues ranging from stem cell research to gay marriage, the president has appealed to his base rather than build a consensus for good policy. In doing so, he has consistently hidden his ideologically conservative agenda with moderate rhetoric.
In the wake of President Clinton’s scandals, Bush promised to restore dignity to the White House. Yet Bush has also violated our trust, and, unlike Clinton, he has done so on issues directly affecting our lives. And while he pledged to restore civility to politics, he has run one of the nastiest campaigns in recent history.
But if we believe Bush does not deserve a second term, do we have the confidence that Kerry can do better? Like many others, we have our misgivings about the Massachusetts senator. The caricature of Kerry as a flip-flopper is inaccurate, but it emerges out of a shred of truth: The Democrat has seldom shown real political courage during his campaign. Most strikingly in the case of Iraq, Kerry has shown at times a frustrating inability to explain exactly where he stands — a weakness only magnified by Bush’s straight talk.
Still, we see great promise in Kerry’s candidacy. The Democrat has been at his most eloquent in explaining how the president has failed the American people, and we believe he is well-suited to put the nation back on track.
Kerry has expressed an understanding of the need to stay the course in Iraq while re-establishing the support of allies we have alienated. His commitment to fighting terrorism is no less sincere than Bush’s, and we have much more confidence in his ability to stem the tide of anti-Americanism feeding those attacks. Likewise, Kerry’s pledge to repeal Bush’s top-bracket tax cut is a strong step toward renewed fiscal responsibility, and his ambitious health-care proposal is an innovative approach to one of this nation’s most shameful problems.
We have come to trust Kerry on many of the issues we consider most important. We trust him to appoint fair and reasonable Supreme Court justices, to maintain a woman’s right to choose and to protect our civil liberties. And we trust that he will see homeland security as a means of making us safer, not a political wedge issue.
Most of all, we strongly endorse John Kerry because we believe he has the ability to do what Bush has not: ask questions, build coalitions and consider different perspectives. Much has been made of the fact that whoever wins next Tuesday, a Yalie will occupy the Oval Office. Yet we see stark differences in how Bush and Kerry live up to the ideals of their alma mater. Yale prides itself on rewarding intellectual curiosity and fostering open debate. And though the White House is not a seminar room, we value a president’s willingness to think critically about his beliefs and subject his proposals to scrutiny.
In Bush, we see a president who has been constrained by stubbornly refusing to admit his mistakes or entertain alternative ideas. But in these uncertain times, we need a president with the ability to be both strong and open-minded — a president like John Kerry.