All quiet on the home front

The Democrats' focus on appearing 'electable' has stopped them from winning arguments.

Alex Gourevitch

Topics Politics

US President George W Bush’s plan to ‘hand over sovereignty’ to the Iraqis on 30 June appears to be in jeopardy. While it remains unclear whether this ‘insurgency’ is truly a war of national liberation, what was a low intensity and seemingly uncoordinated guerrilla operation has certainly acquired a more popular character.

At different moments over the past few weeks, US-led coalition troops have been unable to secure control over areas of major Iraqi cities, including Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf, Fallujah, Nasiriya, Basra, Kut, Baqubah and Kufa. In those regions coalition troops do ‘control’, it is unclear what this control means. With Spanish and Dominican troops planning to withdraw, and the UN unwilling to relieve the burden of dwindling foreign and domestic support for the occupation, Bush’s plan to ‘liberate and democratise’ Iraq is on shaky ground.

This would be an obvious moment for Bush’s American political opponents to seize on his weakness. A recent poll found that fewer than half of all US citizens approve of the way Bush is handling Iraq (1). His job approval ratings have similarly declined.

Yet the criticism emerging from the ‘Anybody But Bush’ campaign, centred around Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, is decidedly lame. When the clashes first flared up, Kerry’s response was earnest but subdued, and focused mainly on style rather than substance. ‘Our diplomacy has been about as arrogant and ineffective as anything I’ve ever seen’, Kerry said on a political talk show.

In fact, Kerry has been quick to emphasise that his beef wasn’t with the content of Bush’s policies – Kerry would just go about things in a nicer and more cooperative way. In a column written in mid-April, in response to the escalating conflicts in Iraq, Kerry wrote: ‘The primary responsibility for security must remain with the US military, preferably helped by NATO until we have an Iraqi security force fully prepared to take responsibility.’ (3)

To be sure, Kerry has argued he would be more willing than Bush to engage international partners, but this cosmetic difference conceals the fact that Kerry has been poorly positioned to take advantage of Bush’s current predicament.

A candidate who had staked out original and principled differences from Bush would have been able to exploit the situation. While there were many reasons not to like Howard Dean, it was much clearer where he stood on the war, and he could have made considerable political capital. Anyone who had consistently objected to the ridiculous proposition that Iraq could have been ‘democratised’ from the outside, especially since there was no organised alternative basis for a state, may have experienced some rocky moments when Saddam was captured. But taking that political risk would have paid off now, and most likely would have continued to do so.

However, principled consistency is out of temper with contemporary politics. Immediately after Dean’s so-called screaming fit in the Iowa caucuses, his electoral fortunes took a turn for the worse. It seems that what he was really punished for was appearing to care enough about an issue to look like a zealot. In an odd way, Dean shares with Bush what seems to disconcert a lot of people: they are both accused of coming across as ‘fundamentalists’. Bush has been criticised for being a ‘crusader’ or, as Kerry and many Democrats put it, ‘arrogant’.

While people may find the Kerry’s placid and empathetic style of politics more comforting, it is also a self-constraining and apolitical approach. (Even the ‘Anybody But Bush’ opposition has been criticised for appearing to express ‘hatred’ rather than the ostensibly more acceptable ‘dislike’.)

When political passion is considered pathological, it is impossible to sustain a real political debate. After all, there is nothing reassuring or pleasing about principled politics – in opposition or otherwise. Moreover, masking true opinions behind a politically correct style means that even when you are right, you cannot take advantage of it. The more contemporary politicians line up behind today’s ‘anti-fundamentalist’ ethos, the more difficult it is to know where they stand.

The irony is, what seems to be a strategy for making Kerry ‘electable’ prevents him from developing any coherent and consistent critique of Bush, or fully exploiting the many openings Bush’s hapless presidency has left. That Bush felt the need to hold only the third press conference of his entire presidency last week was a clear sign that the administration knows something is amiss, and feels a need to try and reassure the public. Despite a poor performance, the tactic may have worked, if for no other reason than that it exposed once again the fact that the opposition had no meaningful alternative around which a public debate could polarise. After a month of chaos in Iraq, the opposition should have more to say about the current situation than that Bush is arrogant.

Nor can Kerry justify his strategy by hiding behind public fear and caution. Political leaders are supposed to do just that – lead. Appealing to the public’s powers of reason and respect for principle by arguing steadfastly for one’s own position would surely be more attractive than a campaign carefully tailored not to offend anybody. And people respond to what’s put before them.

Of course, Kerry has proposed a number of carefully thought out policy proposals, all of which differ from Bush’s own views, on subjects ranging from tax relief to healthcare to college education (4). But if he does not take qualitatively different stances on the defining political issues of the day – such as terrorism and Iraq – then it is unlikely any of his other issue-based differences will stick.

In fact, it is precisely by taking political risks and by being willing to offend that an opposition figure convinces the public that he or she represents not just a different set of policies, but a different politics. Yet Kerry stays on Bush’s territory when he argues ‘I think I could fight a far more effective war on terror’ (5). In a way, by centring his opposition to Bush on ‘bread and butter’ issues and presidential ‘attitude’, while trying to neutralise the so-called defence issues, Kerry merely ends up appealing to selfish motives. No doubt many Americans have hit hard times and would appreciate better healthcare and more secure pensions, but people want more from politics than merely to serve their economic self-interest.

Instead of sticking his neck out, Kerry seems to have withdrawn from taking strong positions on touchy issues, with the hope that Bush will self-destruct. Given the haphazard character of Bush’s presidency so far, and the trouble brewing in Iraq, this just might work – but more by dumb luck than principled strategy. Recent polls may have given Kerry confidence that his tactic is working. However, what is really remarkable is not that Bush’s approval ratings are falling, but that they haven’t fallen more.

Alex Gourevitch is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, New York.

(1) After Falluja: public support for war steady, but bush job ratings slip (.pdf 33.9 KB), Pew Research Centre, 5 April 2004

(2) Kerry sharpens criticism of Iraq policy, Mike Glover, Washington Post, 18 April 2004

(3) A Strategy for Iraq, John Kerry, Washington Post, 13 April 2004

(4) See John Kerry on the Issues, on the John Kerry website

(5) Kerry sharpens criticism of Iraq policy, Mike Glover, Washington Post, 18 April 2004

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Topics Politics


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