Bush Is Not a Safe Pair of Hands. But Is Kerry?

Jonathan Rauch

IT IS WIDELY believed that the voters have only two choices
nationwide in the presidential election next month. This
is incorrect. There are three choices:

A) President Bush

B) Sen. John Kerry

C) Prozac

That observation is occasioned by one of the countless e-mails
I received from my fans last week. Well, not technically
countless. Two. And maybe not precisely from fans. One e-mailer
asked what I was smoking. The other was my father, an archetypal
independent voter in a competitive state (Arizona). He said
he would not vote for Bush: “He was right about invading
Iraq. He was grossly negligent in preparing for the after-war.
I can’t trust him not to make that type of mistake again.
Equally negligent has been his running up of the national
debt. It’s unconscionable. He has been great on Israel.”

But Kerry? No sale. “I won’t vote for Kerry. I think his
radical Left supporters—a small but very influential
percentage—might have Kerry doing harm to this country.
I could never support a person who has those kinds of supporters.
Yeah, I know about the radical Right who are Bush supporters.
My view on that is that they are inflicting harm, but the
harm can be undone in future years.”

There are probably a lot of people out there like my father:
Swimmers—SWing, Independent, and Moderate voters. Partisans
have no trouble making up their mind this year. But for
Swimmers, these are desperate times.

I am no romantic about the American presidency. Some people
think a president should inspire the nation and do great
things. Me, I think greatness is nice, but first and foremost,
a president needs to be a safe pair of hands. A president
is a safe pair of hands if he (someday, she) copes adeptly
with a crisis and otherwise solves more problems than he
creates, or at least avoids major mistakes. People say this
is setting the bar too low. Actually, it is setting the
bar quite high. In politics, wisdom and restraint are harder
to come by than vision and ambition.

By my lights, the best president of the last 40 years is
George Bush. That is, George H.W. Bush. Had he done nothing
but close out the Cold War smoothly and peacefully, not
only reuniting Germany but doing so within NATO, that alone
would have earned him history’s esteem. But he also broke
the back of the budget deficit, cleaned up the savings and
loan mess, closed out Ronald Reagan’s failed Central America
policy, adroitly handled the Soviet coup (a knife-edge moment
in world history), and waged the Persian Gulf War with astonishing
diplomatic, military, and even financial finesse.

Then he lost his bid for re-election. That, it seems, is
the part of his record that his son best remembers.

Bush 43 seems to have come to office determined to use his
father as a negative role model. He has little of his father’s
diplomatic skill or instinct for moderation. On the other
hand, the younger Bush is a more talented politician than
his father was, and he has a quick, decisive mind and a
knack for steering straight in a storm. Those qualities
served him well after 9/11, which will surely be remembered
as his finest hour. Bush showed greatness then.

But the same qualities that served Bush well in crisis have
made him prone to excess in ordinary times. He embraced
a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage: a radical
and unnecessary alternative that, by federalizing what ought
to be a state issue, pours gasoline on the fires of the
culture war. (He could have instead doused the flames by
urging an amendment that would leave the issue to the states,
something that other Republicans suggested doing.)

Bush claimed the power to seize American citizens and hold
them incommunicado without allowing them meaningful access
to the judicial system—in effect, asserting that he can
declare ad hoc martial law at will. Detentions may well
be necessary, but a wiser chief executive would also have
thought carefully about the powers he needed and then asked
Congress to give them to him, rather than just making up
law on the fly, awaiting a Supreme Court rebuke, and then
making up more law on the fly.

Bush’s macroeconomic policy is not as reckless as Richard
Nixon’s, but it’s close. Undoubtedly, the country needed
some economic stimulus in 2001, and undoubtedly, the 9/11
emergency required unexpected spending; but Bush has shown
no interest in modulating tax cuts or restraining spending
increases. He has steered the country toward large deficits
at the time when that course is least affordable, as the
Baby Boom retirement costs begin to mount. That is a blow
to America’s long-term strength.

Then there is Iraq, a complicated case. Invading Iraq was
not a mistake; it was a gamble. Not invading Iraq, and thus
leaving Saddam and his demented sons in power while sanctions
crumbled, would also have been a gamble. No one knew, two
years ago, that Saddam was hiding weakness, not weapons.
And history has not yet judged Bush’s wager. Events seem
to have taken a turn for the better in Iraq lately; the
gamble may yet pay off in the form of a stable, democratic
American ally in the heart of the Arab world.

But a president who gambles should gamble prudently. Subsequent
revelations and events suggest that Bush was less prudent
than a president should be. The intelligence on which he
based his decision appears to have been shockingly sketchy,
and the occupation was ill-prepared and poorly executed.
Bush cannot be fairly blamed for taking a calculated risk
in a treacherous situation. He can be blamed for not calculating
more carefully.

Voters who seek a safe pair of hands thus find disappointment
in Bush. They then look to Kerry. They see not recklessness
but a surplus of caution.

Kerry criticizes Bush’s deficits but renounces the measures
that would be necessary to fix them. According to the Concord
Coalition, a nonpartisan fiscal-responsibility group, Bush’s
proposals would increase the deficit by about $1.3 trillion
over the next 10 years, whereas Kerry’s would increase the
deficit by about—$1.3 trillion. Kerry’s supporters argue
their man is more likely to be fiscally responsible once
in office, but that is thin gruel, given Kerry’s face-to-camera
promise not to raise taxes on the middle class, ever.

In Iraq, America faces its biggest and most draining foreign-policy
commitment since Vietnam, and the largest and most difficult
pacification effort since the Philippines a century ago.
Kerry’s plan for Iraq? Not to be George W. Bush. That’s

Writing in this space four years ago, I said that the biggest
policy difference between Bush and his Democratic opponent
was that Bush might reform Social Security, which the Democrat
had vowed not to do. Unfortunately, I’m still right, four
years later. Having failed to deliver on Social Security
reform, Bush is still promising. The Democrats are still
promising to ignore the problem.

If Bush has shown anything, it is that the country needs
a new legal process for detaining potential terrorists without
disemboweling the Constitution. Kerry has evinced no interest
in the issue. In general, he proposes few fresh ideas for
solving the problems that Bush has variously created, exacerbated,
been stuck with, and finessed. He offers many “plans,” but
no equivalent of Bill Clinton’s “end welfare as we know

And what are Kerry’s core beliefs? If you shake him awake
at 3 a.m., what are the two or three things he knows deep
down, the way Reagan knew that Big Government and Communism
were bad and Bush knows that Al Qaeda and its allies have
launched a global insurgency on behalf of a virulent totalitarian
doctrine? I don’t know.

There is nothing wrong with Kerry’s senatorial “flip-flops.”
Maneuvering is what senators do. More disturbing has been
his irresolution on Iraq since becoming a presidential candidate.
Most disturbing of all is that, with only days to go before
the election, I still don’t feel I have a handle on what
he is really all about. Perhaps Kerry is the scion of Dukakism,
the doctrine that the election is about competence, not
ideology. But Kerry is running for president, not city manager.

I don’t believe he is an empty suit. I just wish I knew
what was inside the suit. I can understand why my father
fears that Kerry might be captured by the Left.

Bush is a dynamic leader, but he lacks what a president
most needs: guardrails. Kerry has guardrails, but where
is the road? A dispiriting choice.

What’s a Swimmer to do? It helps to remember that the presidency
matters a lot, but not quite as much as most people think.
And that muddling through usually works out passably well.
And that it is always darkest before the dawn, and you’ll
never walk alone, and tomorrow is another day.

Think on that. And have a Prozac.