Confessions of a Swing Voter

There hasn’t been enough long-term thinking about the significance of the US election. The really interesting question is what will happen next.  Not now, but next — four years from November 2.   

If President Bush is re-elected, then Hillary Rodham Clinton might very well be the Democratic nominee in 2008.  After eight years of Dubya, she might very well win.

If John Kerry is elected, then the Republican nominee in four years could be none other than George W. Bush himself, again.  He might regain the White House for a second term, beginning in 2009.

These aren’t anything like certainties, of course. They are suppositions; likelihoods, I would say. So many contingencies can redirect the path of politics unexpectedly one way or another. But I don’t see how you can think seriously, or at least dispassionately, about politics without thinking in terms of underlying tendencies, and about eight- and twelve-year swatches of time.

Twelve years is what your party gets (at least) if you run your presidency right. Only Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan have pulled it off since 1932. Dwight Eisenhower, it could be said, came close as a low-key custodian of the New Deal.  Bill Clinton almost succeeded, too, as a steward of the Reagan Revolution.

Clearly, this election has become another Close-Run Thing — far closer than was generally expected. Antipathy towards Bush is a big factor. So is distress over the occupation of Iraq. In the debates, Kerry defied the caricature that the Republicans had created.  He demonstrated that, if called upon, he can do the job.

What is the likelihood that John Kerry could, like Bill Clinton, win a second term? By raising taxes and narrowing the deficit, he would hope to activate the same virtuous circle of growth that Clinton rode to re-election and end-of-term balanced budgets. But long-term interest rates are much lower now than then. The same disinflation magic may not be available.

Moreover, Clinton possessed a sunny personality, and Kerry is somewhat dark. The Massachusetts senator’s abilities are great. But his personal history guarantees that debates about the course of policy in Iraq will be inflamed by remembered passions of the Vietnam War.

If elected, Kerry probably would face a powerful challenge after four years — perhaps the current incumbent of the office. Unless he suffers an overwhelming defeat, or unless his usurper were to grow in the job until his stature was incontestable (everybody grows some in that job), Bush is unlikely to retire to his ranch in Crawford, Texas. 

On the other hand, if he is re-elected, the president would be a lame duck from the first day on the job of his new term. Even if he accumulates, say, 320 electoral votes, attention would shift to the composition of the Congress.

For all the big talk to his backers about what he’s going to do — privatize Social Security, pack the Supreme Court, abolish the Internal Revenue Service in favor of a consumption tax — a re-elected president is unlikely to have the legislative backing to do very much at all.

Meanwhile, Bush has already flipped the flop that counts the most. When his war planners fired the Iraqi Army in May of 2003, they made an incredible mistake, permitting the insurgency to take root in the Sunni triangle and other Iraqi cities.

After year of deepening disorder and rising civilian and military casualties, the Bush administration finally acknowledged their error and reversed their position. Last spring they abandoned their protégé, free-marketeer Ahmed Chalabi, and embraced his longtime rival Iyad Allawi, who had deep roots in the Baath party and Iraqi nationalism.

Those early mistakes are the subject of a superb three-part series by New York Times chief military correspondent Michael Gordon, adapted from a forthcoming book — superb, that is, as far as it went. Gordon’s on-the-record reporting of the views of the many military principals, including those of retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the first civilian administrator of Iraq, was penetrating and wide-ranging. The denials by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that they had approved the fateful decision to abolish the Iraqi army give a delicious foretaste of the many recriminations to come.

Gordon divided his critique of the intervention into three parts: the decision to deploy minimal forces and to withdraw them quickly; the various intelligence failures that occurred, mainly about the short-lived paramilitary resistance during the war itself and the extent of weapons caches; and the expectation that order could be maintained after the Iraqi army was disbanded.

But why no fourth part to the series?  Gordon wrote absolutely nothing about the still-little-understood turnabout in May, when sent the Americans first sent Iraqi officers into Falluja wearing their old Army uniforms, and the conduct of the occupation was reversed. Five months erarlier, Chalabi had been seated next to Laura Bush at the State of the Union address; now his Baghdad home and headquarters were seized at gunpoint by Iraqi and American soldiers. About the significance of this dramatic response to the long series of earlier disappointments that he chronicled, the otherwise scrupulous Gordon had nothing to say.

In other words, the The Times’ series was startlingly unbalanced, with the exculpatory material carefully excluded by a narrow construction of the topic. Truth may be the first casualty in war, but at a committed newspaper, fairness doesn’t last much longer.

The main reasons we don’t engage in much long-term thinking is because the (Other) Great American Jobs Machine has taken over. Everyone in both campaigns, and all the commentators, too, are riveted on thinking about what job they are going to get for the next four years — and in which sector, public or private, they will be searching.

There is nothing wrong with that, except to think that everything depends on this cast of characters is to confuse the competitors’ interests with the well-being of the country.    

How different would it have been if Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, had got a second term? If Clinton’s election had been delayed until 1996? If he had been able to take a recession when a recession was needed? If he had been spared the wrath of a Republican Party hell-bent on revenge? If, only now, he were being followed by Al Gore?

None of these things happened. At comparable points in the past, they too might have been predicted, just as I am predicting now, and that they did not occur is powerful testimony to the importance of vicissitudes in politics. To acknowledge the role of time and chance is no reason to capitulate to it, however.

America would do better if it would take longer turns.  For the cleanup of Iraq, I’m voting for George Bush. For all the rest, I’m waiting for Mrs. Clinton.

Kerry now or Hillary later. For swing voters, that’s the real choice.