The Guardian, Saturday November 6, 2004
Reprinted with the author's permission
The most important election for president in my lifetime is over, except of course that it wasn't the most important. That distinction goes to the Johnson/Goldwater election of 1964, in which two opposing world views of US policy confronted each other at a turning point in American history. Senator Barry Goldwater was one of only six Republican senators to oppose the Civil Rights Act of that year; he opposed Lyndon Johnson's nuclear nonproliferation treaty and suggested nuclear weapons be considered for use in Vietnam; and he denounced LBJ's Medicare programme as socialism. So decisive was that election that, even after six intervening Republican presidencies, none of these programmes of Johnson's has been reversed.
The Bush/Kerry race was, by contrast, over tactics and temperament. Both men supported the invasion of Iraq, though they disagreed as to how well it was going; both supported further tax cuts, despite record deficits; both were in favour of freer international trade; both recognised the need for social security reform, but neither could propose solutions commensurate to the problem; both supported Israel's construction of a perimeter wall that would include territory seized in 1967. A Bush presidency, even with greater control of the Senate, will not be able to confirm supreme court justices who oppose abortion rights, any more than Kerry would have been able to pack the court with judges in favour of affirmative action.
The country is sharply divided over easily exaggerated differences, which tends to give prominence to the personalities of the candidates, though here, too, it is tempting to caricature those differences. In private, Kerry is a warm and engaging man; within the White House, President Bush is reported to have a sharp and reproving tongue. The greater difference lies in the one quality that President Kennedy said was most essential in a politician: the quality of being forgiven.
Despite the past four years, Americans still believe that Bush will, in his own words of 2000, be a "uniter not a divider". Indeed, the president apparently still believes this. In his victory speech, he said: "A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation."
And perhaps it is even true. It may be that, without the fear of losing an election for a second term, Bush will take a number of decisions that are more in line with his stated policies - compassionate conservatism, a global war on terror, family values - than he may have felt possible in his first term. Consider, for example, what sorts of measures would be appropriate to an administration that took the war on terror seriously.
If the US were at war, the size of the armed forces would be increased; at present, these forces are no larger than they were before September 11. No US government has ever gone to war without an increase in the force structure.
A government at war would bring prominent members of the opposite party into the national security cabinet, as FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Clinton did.
If, as the president has explained, the US has entered a new era of warfare in Iraq, then the number and mix of forces there ought to reflect the war in which those forces are engaged. It might have been considered politically reckless to put a larger force in Iraq before the election; surely there can be no reason to refuse to do so now.
Because the war on terror requires maximum confidence and trust from the domestic polity, it cannot be wise to continue in the offices of attorney general and head of the department of homeland security two Republican politicians with no background in intelligence or security matters.
Because that war demands maximum cooperation with foreign states, the appointment of a figure such as John Danforth to the state department, should Colin Powell resign, would be welcome. Danforth has a good reputation at the UN and is a lawyer – an important fact at a time when the reform of international law ought to be at the top of Bush's agenda.
The US at war should give top priority to those projects in international relations that demonstrate the salience of common interests among allies – as, for example, with climate change – and common projects, such as humanitarian intervention in Sudan.
If the US is really at war, it will want to raise taxes rather than become ever more dependent on foreign loans to fund defence; it will want to promote energy policies that reduce dependence on foreign oil; it will vigorously try to bring an end to violence in Palestine, with all the poison that conflict has spread to Muslim societies everywhere.
On all these matters, it seemed, the politics of re-election trumped the necessities of war. That can no longer be the case.
More than 40% of Latinos voted for Bush; more than 36% of union households voted for Bush; more than 40% of households with annual incomes of less than $30,000 voted for Bush. Having lost the popular election in 2000 by half a million votes, this time Bush won by 3.5m votes.
I rather doubt that Bush has a mandate to pursue the agenda of the Republican right wing – the Republicans gained only four seats in the 435-member House of Representatives. Rather he has a mandate to be the George Bush he believes himself to be: a bipartisan leader called upon by events he did not anticipate to conduct a war of novel complexity, subtlety and potential lethality.
Philip Bobbitt is the author of The War on Terror, to be published by Penguin in 2005
About Professor Bobbitt: http://www.utexas.edu/law/faculty/pbobbitt/
Professor Bobbitt News: http://www.utexas.edu/law/faculty/pbobbitt/news.html