Where does Osama bin Laden stand on gay marriage? What are his views on privatization of Social Security and stem cell research? Is he concerned about judges who place their personal opinions ahead of the Constitution? Or does he care more about corporations that outsource good American jobs to foreign countries?
It seems we're going to have a national debate about whom bin Laden and al Qaeda support for president. Fair enough. Bin Laden's opinion, if only we could know it, would probably affect the judgment of voters more than that of any other independent thinker except, of course, John McCain. So far, the bin Laden debate has been pretty one-sided, with a string of Republican public officials claiming that terrorists are rooting for John Kerry and some bloggers and a columnist or two suggesting that he may prefer Bush.
My favorite among the Republican mind readers is House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who said last week, "I don't have data or intelligence to tell me one thing or another," which is an assertion that no one will disagree with. But he continued that al Qaeda "would be more apt to go [for] somebody who would file a lawsuit with the World Court or something rather than respond with troops."
Like many Americans, Hastert seems to be confusing bin Laden with Saddam Hussein. This is a confusion the Bush administration and campaign wish to encourage, and the president himself may even share. To describe Kerry's position on Hussein as "file a lawsuit" is merely witless and unfair. To describe his position on bin Laden that way is mystifying.
In fact the Bush administration's focus on Iraq after Sept. 11 -- a country that had nothing to do with the terrible events of that day -- might be a point in the president's favor for bin Laden, as he sits in his cave studying materials from the League of Women Voters and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
If there is one thing we know about bin Laden before the start of the Iraq war, it is that he wasn't in Iraq. With the invasion of Iraq, bin Laden got all the benefits of being America's public enemy No. 1 but none of the disadvantages. He got an explosion of anti-Americanism around the world, potential recruits lined up out the cave door and around the block for future suicide missions, swell new opportunities for terrorism in the chaos of Iraq itself, and the forced retirement of Saddam Hussein, whom he never cared for. He got a thousand Americans dead and hundreds of billions of capitalist dollars gone -- results that would make any terrorist episode a huge success -- without his having to lift a finger. And meanwhile, every bomb dropped on Iraq was a bomb not dropped on him. What's not to like?
True, bin Laden probably does hold it against Bush that, when not distracted by Iraq, the president has been trying to kill him. That kind of thing can't help but cloud a fellow's judgment. It is all very well for civics textbooks to tell us that, when voting, we should put selfish interests aside and think of the greater good. But it may well be difficult to concentrate on those frightening Congressional Budget Office projections of the structural deficit in 10 years when there is an even more frightening din of bombs exploding and a direct hit on a cave three caves down and one to the right.
But bin Laden cannot help noticing that so far Bush has failed to kill him. And he has no reason to suppose that a President Kerry would enjoy announcing his death or capture to the world any less than Bush would. So for bin Laden -- just as for many voters in this election -- the choice comes down to the lesser of two evils.
The difference between Osama bin Laden's endorsement and John McCain's (well, one of many differences) is that McCain's presumably has a positive effect and bin Laden's has a negative one. If bin Laden wants to help his candidate, he must hide, or even disguise, his preference. This makes any argument or evidence about that preference inherently self-defeating. If he is honorary chairman of the annual "Kabul Salutes W" dinner and gala, does that mean he supports Bush or does it mean he wants people to think he supports Bush, which then must mean that he does not support Bush?
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said recently that terrorists in Iraq "are trying to influence the election against President Bush." In saying so, Armitage is trying to influence the election in favor of President Bush. But he has no evidence other than these actions. And if their very actions send a clear message that they are trying to defeat President Bush, then the effect of those actions will be to help President Bush. So even if Armitage is right, he's wrong.
At least Osama bin Laden is probably concentrating on what really matters in this election. He is not spending a lot of time comparing ancient typewriter fonts, or reviewing the circumstances of Kerry's third Purple Heart. In that sense -- and only in that sense -- he may be a good influence.
The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.