President George W. Bush should not have won re-election last week.
Both liberals and conservatives alike can file grievances with this administration. The president, through massive tax cuts foolishly enacted in a time of war, has created deficits as far as the eye can see. His repeal of the estate tax, couched in the language of economic populism, applies only to the richest 2 percent of Americans and will result in $300 billion of lost tax revenue. According to Newsday, nearly half of the Bush administration’s top-level, confirmed cabinet appointees hail from private corporations, law and lobbying firms, which has led to the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse. Somehow portraying himself as a disciple of free markets, the president has signed both a protectionist farm bill as well as a steel importation tariff. All of these domestic failings are in addition to the fact that we sent our military into Iraq some several hundred thousand soldiers short and that much of the world hates us.
With an opponent like this, how did John Kerry manage to lose? Numerous Monday morning quarterbacks (and a healthy quantity of self-righteous Yalies) blamed Kerry’s loss on the homophobia of large swathes of people living in Red America and cited the statistic that “moral values” ranked highest (22 percent) among the priorities of Bush supporters. Yet “moral values” is a subjective term. Many of those who declared it the primary reason for supporting the president did so not because they wish to “protect” marriage from gay couples (President Bush has endorsed civil unions) but because they appreciate a black-and-white approach to the War on Terror. They rightly see this war as a moral war to defend the western world from a band of reactionaries determined to catapult us back to the seventh century. On the other hand, Kerry’s campaign pledges, bordering on obsessive multilateralism, made him look weak on the issue. When Kerry intoned that he would “kill the terrorists” or John Edwards declared to al Qaeda, “You cannot run. You cannot hide. And we will destroy you,” their war cries sounded, at best, forced.
Bush comes across as single-mindedly tough when it comes to fighting terror. Yalies and the coastal elite may find Bush’s speaking style to be overly bellicose, in which case most Americans appreciate executive bellicosity. According to an Annenberg Public Policy Center survey released in late September, 67 percent of Americans said they feel safer due to the government’s actions since Sept. 11, 2001. This, and not some previously untapped plethora of homophobes donning Stetsons, is why Bush won. Americans have a habit of re-electing wartime presidents, and this past election was no exception.
While Bush won on his security credentials, John Kerry lost because he utterly failed to articulate a foreign policy vision. All the senator offered were critiques of the president and defenses of his own hopelessly contradictory record. But there is no reason why Republicans should be able to use national security as a club to defeat Democrats. It may be hard to imagine, but in forming his own foreign policy, George W. Bush owes nearly everything to former presidents Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, all Democrats.
It was Wilson who, by intervening in World War I and later advocating a League of Nations, resisted isolationists in Congress to “make the world safe for democracy.” FDR similarly battled Republicans to aid Britain in its fight against fascism. Harry Truman extended his predecessor’s New Deal to Europe via the Marshall plan and shipped arms to anti-communists in Greece and Turkey, demonstrating a preternatural understanding of the threat communism posed to free people everywhere. John F. Kennedy spoke of the “long twilight struggle” against the Soviet Union and asked his countrymen to live up to the challenge.
It is this noble tradition of creating a liberal international order, providing succor to small “d” democrats and defeating tyrants, that Walter Russell Mead labeled “The American Project.” Until the failure of Vietnam, it was a project largely promoted by Democrats, and now, President Bush has wisely co-opted their strategy. Meanwhile, it is unclear if Kerry, who has been wrong on nearly every defense issue from the Reagan military build-up to the first Gulf War, even believes in it.
The fundamental dilemma for Democrats is their willingness to accept hegemonic American power, a world role that John Kerry has always been reticent to embrace. What is the alternative for Democrats? There is always filmmaker Michael Moore, who many high-ranking Democrats say does not represent the views of their party. If this is the case, then why did dozens of them, including party chairman Terry McAuliffe, attend the premiere of “Fahrenheit 9/11” last summer and offer this modern-day snake-oil salesman high praise? If the Democratic Party wishes to sidle up to fellow travelers like Michael Moore and others who find common cause with al Qaeda, they can go right ahead. But they should not expect Democrats like myself to ever vote for their candidates again.
This election was a referendum on Bush’s wartime leadership. The American people sent a resounding message of support for the president’s approach, and furthermore, that they did not trust Kerry to take them forward. Democrats would do well to heed this message as we discuss how to reshape our party. In his first Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy proclaimed, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
This is America’s mission. It is up to our generation, especially us Democrats, to fulfill it.
James Kirchick is a junior in Pierson College. He is an occasional columnist.