As the presidential race draws to a close, it may be difficult for American voters to focus on the really big questions that the Bush-Kerry contest raises. An unending stream of public opinion polls, a barrage of new 30-second advertisements, the wild gyrations of television political talk shows, and the transparent attempt by CBS News, the New York Times, and others to affect the election through their news departments combine to paint a picture for the electorate that looks a bit like a Picasso painted on the inside of a kaleidoscope.
So what is the big picture?
It is important to remember always the limitations of the presidency. No president can do everything that his supporters hope or his opponents fear. Presidents are constrained by the permanent bureaucracy, Congress, the courts, and even the states (think about California’s stem cell initiative). Second term presidents, especially since the adoption of the 22nd Amendment, are increasingly hamstrung until their power dwindles to virtually nothing.
That said, there are a number of overarching questions that Americans will ignore only at their own peril.
- Does America have the stomach for the fight that it is in? In many respects, this is the fundamental question of the election. For all of his rhetoric of toughness in 2004, John Kerry’s record since his return from Vietnam does not inspire confidence about his judgment, his steadiness, or his resolve. Whether advancing the cause of North Vietnamese propaganda, posing with Daniel Ortega, obstructing the Reagan defense buildup, cutting the intelligence budget, or voting against Desert Storm, Kerry has developed an utterly consistent record of defeatism, retreat, and appeasement. George W. Bush has, on the other hand, taken the fight to the enemy with determination. A vote against Bush is a vote against fighting through to victory in Iraq and in the war on terror in general, a vote for cutting our losses, hunkering down, and returning to a pre-September 11 strategy of passive defense—and will be interpreted as such by our friends and our enemies alike.
- Is America prepared to draw the line against the further erosion of the moral foundation of American society? Whether the issue is abortion, gay marriage, or embryonic stem cell research, we are asked by Kerry’s strongest supporters (and often by Kerry himself) to obliterate ethical boundaries and to believe that the nation can be sustained on a moral foundation of little more than nihilism, narcissism, and hedonism, the social program of the left since the 1960s. Indeed, it is increasingly clear to me that the fundamental source of the irrational hatred of Bush that infects the left is a profound anti-religious bigotry. At recent academic roundtables, I learned from three different Kerry supporters that Bush should be defeated because he is supported by “Bible- thumping Christians,” “praying people,” people who take a candidate’s faith into account; a Bush win would be a lamentable victory for the “theocrats” who run the Republican Party. In fact, a victory for Bush would be a victory for the proposition that moral nihilism is not an adequate foundation for a free society. It would also be a victory for the proposition that America’s religious heritage should be respected and treasured as a national resource rather than denigrated (by the core of Kerry’s coalition) or diluted to insignificance (by Kerry himself).
- Will the American people contribute to the collapse of rational political discourse by rewarding Michael Moore, George Soros, MoveOn.org, and their ilk, or will they say “enough is enough?” Two nights in a row, I was treated to academic supporters of John Kerry arguing seriously in a public forum that George Bush was a “proto-fascist” and a Hitler-like menace to the peace of the world. If this kind of rhetoric is not tamped down by electoral rejection, we can only expect more of it. Likewise, Americans must decide whether to hold the elite media accountable for its blatant cheerleading for Kerry, which has passed through the course of the campaign from amusing to embarrassing to frightening. Taken together, the partisans and their press allies have conducted themselves more irresponsibly and more viciously than in any election in recent history. If tolerated by the public—and a Kerry win would send a clear signal of tolerance—just wait until 2008.
- What value will Americans place on the principle of consent of the governed? The next president will almost certainly be able to make a number of appointments to the Supreme Court, and those appointees will largely determine whether judicial imperialism will continue to metastasize. If carried into areas like same-sex marriage and other key social controversies, current judicial tendencies have but one final endpoint, the point at which the American people no longer have control over the laws that define us as a nation. A victory for George Bush may or may not produce a victory for separation of powers, consent of the governed, and the rule of law—there are always more David Souters waiting in the wings—but a victory for John Kerry will almost certainly represent a defeat for those things. And without consent of the governed, the Declaration of Independence tells us, there is no legitimate government.
Resolve or “nuance”? Moral boundaries or nihilism? Rational debate or “Bush is a fascist, and here are some forged documents you might be interested in?” Consent of the governed or judicial imperialism? They don’t make the neatest bumper stickers, and they don’t all fit into a 30-second ad. Whatever George W. Bush’s shortcomings in other areas—not least, his loss of control over domestic spending and the near-total eclipse of the limited-government argument between elections—these questions provide four big reasons to vote for him. The answers Americans choose to give on November 2 will go a long way toward defining the meaning and significance of this election.
Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.