So. It’s Bush v Kerry, and the battle lines have already been clearly drawn:
flip-flopping Massachusetts liberal vs strong leader with moral clarity. And
for all that Kerry might be leading in the polls at the moment, I agree with
the collective opinion of the bettors on Tradesports:
Bush still has something like a 62% chance of winning the election.
The liberal press has done a pretty solid job of glossing Kerry’s about-faces.
Michael Grunwald has a long table
of them in Slate, while David Halbfinger has a front-page
story in today’s New York Times on the same subject. The general gist seems
to be that Kerry is weak, indecisive: an all-things-to-all-people candidate.
George Bush has already been making hay along those lines. "Senator Kerry
has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue,"
he said after the Democratic nomination had been secured. Even earlier, he’d
described the Democratic field as "for tax cuts and against them. For NAFTA
and against NAFTA. For the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act. In favour
of liberating Iraq and opposed to it. And that’s just one senator from Massachusetts."
In the New York Times article, the defenses of Kerry partisans are pretty weak:
Some aides and close associates say Mr. Kerry’s fluidity is the mark of an
intellectual who grasps the subtleties of issues, inhabits their nuances and
revels in the deliberative process. "He doesn’t fit into any neat pigeon
holes," said Mr. Kerry’s younger brother, Cameron, his closest adviser.
"He’s complex. So what?"
And the story ends with an utterly self-defeating quote from Jonathan Winer,
a former Kerry aide:
"Between the moral clarity, black and white, good and evil of George
Bush that distorts and gets reality wrong, and someone who quotes a French
philosopher, André Gide, saying, `Don’t try to understand me too much,’
I’d let Americans decide which in the end is closer to what they need in a
Um, right, Mr Winer. George Bush is going to paint
himself as a war president, a strong leader who fights on the side of good
(and of God, natch) against the "evildoers". Will Americans really
rather elect someone who quotes a French philosopher? Er, no.
When you actually look at the list of Kerry’s flip-flops, however, it’s slightly
more difficult to get annoyed at them.
On affirmative action and education reform, Kerry started off tacking against
the Democratic Party, before being pulled back in to the liberal mainstream.
This doesn’t really worry me: a president’s positions on such things don’t really
matter too much, and if a Republican-controlled Congress should pass a sensible
bill on either issue, the chances are that Kerry is going to be able to see
the other party’s point. In that he’s in stark contrast to Bush, who, for all
his rhetoric about being a "uniter, not a divider", has never seen
a Democratic policy he didn’t hate.
On mandatory minimum sentences and welfare reform, Kerry moved the other way:
he started off liberal and then triangulated. In that, he was simply following
the path of intelligent left-wingers everywhere, as exemplified by Bill Clinton
and Tony Blair. Kerry has been a politician since the Vietnam war, and anybody
who has exactly the same opinions now that they had 30 years ago should, in
my view, be disqualified from ever running for office. The Clinton/Blair Third
Way hasn’t had much press recently, but it remains the only realistic way for
a Democrat to get elected president.
On the issue of the death penalty for terrorists, the New York Times actually
makes a convincing case that his reason for opposing it (that no one would extradite
terrorists to the US) doesn’t really apply any more: the US has proved itself
pretty adept at getting its hands on terrorists other nations have captured.
Which leaves, in terms of the Slate list, at least, economic policy: gas taxation,
double taxation of dividends, and trade. These are issues where the president
has a lot of clout, and we want someone who’s getting it right. The bedrock
of the Third Way was that the leftist parties in the US and the UK had become
more fiscally responsible than the right-wing parties who had traditionally
held that ground: Clinton balanced the budget, while Blair’s first bill in Parliament
gave independence to the Bank of England. Robert Rubin set the standard for
finance ministers around the world, with Gordon Brown coming in a close second.
The trade issue is the most worrisome. Kerry seems to have caught a nasty
strain of protectionism from his potential running-mate John Edwards –
one which is only reinforced by the logic of triangulation. If you want to move
from Democratic orthodoxy towards the Bush administration on such issues, you
need to shift to the left by quite a large amount.
Double taxation of dividends doesn’t worry me at all: it’s one thing saying
that it ought to be abolished in theory, at the corporate level; it’s another
thing entirely voting for a hugely fiscally irresponsible tax bill which abolishes
it at the personal level, creating all manner of stupid tax inefficiencies and
But the gasoline tax issue is yet another case where fiscal responsibility
has been triangulated away. The Bush administration has been so fiscally insane
that it’s a no-brainer for the Democrats to run as fiscal conservatives. But
when it comes to the grey zone between rhetoric and policies, I’m having an
increasingly hard time believing that Kerry will be nearly as hawkish as he
needs to be.
A registered Democrat, then, is likely to look at the list of Kerry flip-flops
and not feel particularly aggrieved by them. Even Republicans won’t see little
to hate there. But on the issue of flip-flopping in general, it’s clear that
Kerry is a politician in the Clintonian vein, who worries all sides of an issue
to death before making up his mind. Bush is the opposite: he just barges ahead
regardless of the intricacies or subtleties in any situation. And in terms of
electoral politics, that might not be such a bad thing. After the midterm elections,
I wrote that
What we saw yesterday was a vote for leadership in uncertain times. Bush
might not be the sharpest tack in the drawer, but he makes decisions, sticks
to them, and is unapologetic about them. As far as he’s concerned, he knows
what’s best for the country, and he’s going to do it. That is what’s behind
the unprecedented mid-term success for the party in the White House. And so
long as times remain uncertain (which they surely will if the US invades Iraq)
the same calculus will apply in 2004.
Well, the US invaded Iraq, as we all know, and I stand by what I wrote back
then. There are lots of reasons why it makes sense to have a rather more sophisticated
president, but I don’t think that those reasons are compelling to swing voters.
Americans, I fear, will always prefer Rambo to Rimbaud.