So they say that we are polarized. People either loathe George Bush with a visceral intensity, or else they loathe the loathers. Well, maybe this describes the majority out there, but it doesn't describe me. Call me a flip-flopper if you want, but I bounce back and forth between the candidates.
Begin with foreign policy. Bush is right about the big lessons of Sept. 11: that terrorism is a mortal threat; that its root causes lie in poverty and state failure; that you can't sit about waiting for the enemy to declare war, so you need the option of preemption.
Bush smashed the Taliban in Afghanistan, even though large parts of the Democratic foreign policy establishment opposed any strategy involving boots on the ground. Bush announced the biggest expansion in foreign assistance in recent memory and designed a smart way of dispensing it. Bush ousted Saddam Hussein, whereas the Democratic establishment, which also believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and also talked the talk of regime change, would never have done anything so risky.
John Kerry, on the other hand, is a lot more timid. He's fudging the question about whether he would have gone into Iraq, but his record suggests that his appetite for foreign policy risk is between small and zero. He voted against stationing intermediate nuclear missiles in Europe in the 1980s, against the Nicaraguan contras and against the Persian Gulf War. Seared by the experience of Vietnam, he is on the risk-averse wing of the risk-averse party. But the United States does not have the option of withdrawing from the war on terrorism in the way that it withdrew from Saigon. Kerry's inclinations seem wrong for the times that we live in.
Now I'll flop the other way. Bush's clear foreign policy principles are matched by clear foreign policy incompetence. After routing the Taliban, Bush's Pentagon insisted, against all experience and good sense, that the country could be rebuilt with a peacekeeping force of only 5,000 troops confined to the capital. At one point a senior State Department official mooted a fivefold expansion in that force, and just about every outside expert on nation-building agreed. But these voices were ignored. As a result, Afghanistan is descending into the hands of drug-dealing warlords.
Then came the Iraq mess. Bush and his officials over-interpreted the evidence on weapons of mass destruction, treating suppositions as hard facts. They failed to plan for the postwar operation, and they acted surprised when the power vacuum caused by the regime's implosion triggered looting and mayhem. They needlessly alienated allies with taunts about "old Europe." And they permitted the Abu Ghraib abuses, which have damaged America's reputation and influence for years to come.
By going into Iraq, Bush showed a welcome willingness to take risks and preempt threats; he showed that the United States could project force aggressively. But by going into Iraq, Bush showed an inability to calibrate risk and preempt possible setbacks; he has damaged America's ability to project force aggressively.
Now take economic policy. Despite early steel and farm protectionism, Bush has turned out to be good on trade and globalization. His team launched the Doha round of global trade talks, which will focus on liberalization that helps poor countries. It has kept them moving ahead, despite the protectionist pressures generated by a weak economy. It has resisted turning China into a trade whipping boy, despite pressure to do so from both business and labor.
Again, Kerry is not so forthright. He refuses to support the Central American Free Trade Agreement because he says it has inadequate labor protections, even though there are real labor protections in the deal and even though the best protection for workers is the economic growth to which free trade contributes. Kerry cannot bring himself to issue a statement welcoming progress in the Doha talks, even though global free trade could lift 500 million people out of poverty, according to William Cline of the Center for Global Development, and even though it could enrich the United States to the tune of $200 billion annually, according to Harvard's Jeff Frankel, a former Clinton official.
On the other hand you have domestic economic policy. Bush's tax cuts are regressive, even though technology and globalization are already increasing inequality. Bush's tax cuts are enormous, even though we face a baby bust and terrifying long-term trends in health care inflation. And Bush has presided over an explosion of government spending. He has never once wielded his veto to block pork-barrel waste, and his efforts on entitlements consist of ignoring the recommendations of his own Social Security commission, plus creating a brand new entitlement to prescription drugs for retirees.
So which should I prefer? A candidate whose foreign policy instincts are wrong? Or one whose implementation discredits his good policy? A candidate who lacks the guts to be for trade, or a candidate with an anorexic compulsion to starve the government of money? There are ways to balance these factors, and I'll do that another time. But if people see this as an easy choice, they see something I'm missing.