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July 25, 2004
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Strategic Thinking for Democrats

With barely three months to go, it is difficult to form an expectation about the outcome of the election. Like everybody else, I talk to my political friends.  I read the newspapers. I follow the polls. I look at the maps of the battleground states. I keep coming back to the Fair Model of presidential elections.

It says Bush 58-42.

Oh, I know about the Electoral College. I know that Yale professor Ray Fair’s three-term presidential vote equation conceives of each election as being decided on the narrowest possible economic grounds (growth, inflation, plus a term for better-than-expected economic news). In contrast, I believe that this election will be a referendum on the war in Iraq. I know gas prices are high, and that both parties are still vulnerable to surprise.

For example, Bush has said virtually nothing about what he intends to do if he wins a second term. What if he comes up with program designed to appeal to his base that outrages the rest of the voters? It is entirely possible that John Kerry will win and the Democrats will return to the White House next year.

But then again, what if Bush is reelected?

That just might be the best possible outcome of all for the Democratic Party, for the United States, and for the rest of the world.

Try as I might to think disinterestedly and write perpendicularly for readers whose minds are not entirely made up, I remain, in my bones, a committed Democrat. I didn’t mind sitting back while the Republicans, led by that old New Dealer Ronald Reagan, did their work. Like many other conservative Democrats, I took an active interest in what they were doing.

I believe that, after 24 years of mostly GOP leadership in the United States (and similarly conservative leadership in most countries around the world), many elements of housekeeping in the world today are in much better shape than they were in the 1970s, when the Turn began.

Inflation is low. Communism is a thing of the past. The superpower rivalry is ended, at least for now, and with it the specter of nuclear war. A great deal of industrial restructuring has been accomplished. The tension has been readjusted, roughly, between various kinds of systems thinking (economics, sociology, psychoanalysis) that were new and fashionable in the 20th century and the old-fashioned ethic of self-reliance.

But now various other important arrangements of the public household are breaking down. A consensus on appropriate levels of taxation, which seemed within reach in the United States as recently as 1986, has been dissipated completely. Enormous and unsustainable deficits have reappeared. The retirement security system is swinging slowly out of long-term balance. The health insurance system is a mess. Global warming is simply being ignored by the Republicans. So are the implications of new discoveries in regenerative medicine. Perhaps most alarming, the concept of civil service has deteriorated to the point that government now finds it difficult to attract and retain a corps of first-rate managers.

Meanwhile, the GOP coalition, which includes economic, cultural and social conservatives as well as libertarians, “supply-siders” and foreign policy hawks, in on the verge of breaking apart apart, just as did the famous “big tent” that the Democrats erected in the aftermath of the New Deal.

Given this Republican exhaustion, only the Democrats can fashion a consensus now capable of rebuilding the public household, or so it seems to me. It will that will be the work of twenty or thirty years to do so.  Having zigged for nearly 40 years, then zagged for perhaps another 30 years, the US electorate is preparing to zig again.

Moreover, I am angry at what George W. Bush has done — just not as angry as most of my friends. I don’t think taking on Saddam Hussein was a mistake, although it seems to me that the subsequent occupation of Iraq involved as garish a series of miscalculations as any episode in 200 years of American military history.

The administration seems to have figured that out and reversed itself, though, embracing a law-and-order Iraqi regime instead of pursuing the will-o’-the-wisp of economic democracy. Thus on strictly practical grounds, the Bushies probably are best left to continue to clean up themselves the mess that they made. The very considerable butcher’s bill can be — and should be — settled later.

Nor am I as dismissive of my friends of the social conservatives and religious fundamentalists who form such a large part of the Republicans’ core constituency. You can’t just wish away or otherwise ride roughshod over those who disagree with you. And besides, the religious right has much to say that is important.

It is the Bush administration’s blatant disregard for fiscal housekeeping that really bothers me. The blowing-open of the treasury with massive tax cuts on the eve of war. The exacerbation of the ills of the Social Security program and the hash-making of the medical system as well — all the while lamely pursuing the goals of its “Ownership Society.”  (As if we didn’t have one already!) There’s an economic crisis up ahead, all right, but it won’t come soon enough to influence this election.

I have two reasons, however, for thinking it will be all right if Bush is re-elected — perhaps for even preferring that outcome. In the superheated atmosphere of the 2004 campaign, it is difficult to get people to think strategically about these matters.  But let me try.

One reason is simply a preference for fair play.

In an age when nearly everyone is utterly certain of the correctness of their judgment, this issue is not often raised in politics. Yet the concept is fairly widely understood. The principle is not much different than in, say, soccer. The 2000 election was, of course, an absolute dead heat. There was no way it could be “scientifically” decided. It would have taken far too long for the House of Representatives to exercise its powers.

So a referee, in this case the Supreme Court, made a timely call, awarded the ball to the Republican candidate, and shouted “Play on!” — which the Bush White House then did, with brio. Granted that the referee was hardly without conflicts; mainly the Court seems to have been concerned with maintaining the flow of the game, which turned out to be not a small consideration, given the dangerous world in which we live.  Now that most of us have made up our minds about who to prefer in the coming election, why worry about the last election? Indeed, why worry overmuch if the next one goes the other way?

Chances are that George Bush would dig himself in deeper in the course of a second term, anyway. Why not make a virtue of giving him the benefit of the doubt? With the exception of his war-making powers, very little that he does is irreversible. (Not everyone shares this view!) Perhaps Democratic voters shouldn’t be so apoplectic about giving him the hook. Why not keep that guy dancing on the stage a little while longer — until the Republican Party’s depletion as a source of viable ideas becomes unmistakable to nearly everyone?

The other ground for thinking a second Bush term would not be so bad is my conviction that the Democrats possess a candidate who can win the White House in 2008, govern successfully for eight years and leave everybody better off than before. She is, of course, Hillary Rodham Clinton. (I also think there is a good chance the Democrats will control the Senate for the next four years.)

But what about John F. Kerry? Doesn’t he deserve a chance to be president? Surely no one deserves the office, just because he is not George Bush. Kerry is a weak candidate. He would make a disappointing president, if he happens to get elected. His ascension to the office would increase the likelihood that we would have to go through yet another of these bone-jarring exchanges of power before things finally settle down on a steady tack — four or eight or even twelve more years in a high state of aggravation.

It is important to understand the deep split in the Democratic Party, the on-going struggle over who is to have the upper hand. This year’s convention is in Boston because Sen. Edward M. Kennedy wanted it here — perhaps his Last Hurrah. Similarly, John Kerry won the nomination only because of he was able to tap into the services of an extensive network of campaign professionals whose experience goes back to the Ted Kennedy insurgency in 1980 — and whose background includes the Michael Dukakis and Paul Tsongas candidacies as well.

But equally strong is the Clinton faction, now led by the junior senator from New York. These are the operatives who actually succeeded in winning the White House and governing the country for eight years. It cost Mrs. Clinton nothing to defer to Sen. Kennedy this year. But if Kerry loses, you can bet that the next Democratic convention will be in New York — and that the party will have been taken over by the kind of “new” Democrats who made Bill Clinton’s presidency such a relatively successful one.

There was a time when it didn’t seem that a Hillary Clinton presidential candidacy could possibly succeed. How improbable is a husband and wife succession? Surely no more improbable than a father and son — and perhaps a lot less risky.  Mrs. Clinton is older, wiser, less brash, more seasoned. She has run for office. She has paid her dues. And if George Bush wins the election in November, she is very likely to move back to the White House in 2009 as the first female president of the United States.

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