As he often did, Ronald Reagan crystallized a common intuition into a continental thought when in 1980 he asked voters if they were better off than they had been four years earlier. Surely voters have often made, without articulating, such judgments on the eve of presidential elections.
But when national traumas have occurred since the previous election, Reagan's question is inapposite. It would have sounded odd in 1864, when more than three years of civil war had intervened. Or in 1944, when the nation again reelected a president, even though it would have been peculiar to ask whether people were better off than they had been in 1940.
In both of those blood-soaked years Americans were arguably better off than they had been four years earlier, because insuppressible conflicts had at last been joined and were being won. Nevertheless, the "better off" ques-tion could not have neatly framed those elections and cannot frame this year's.
However, John Kerry's selection of John Edwards suggests an itch to frame it that way. The most liberal senator's choice of the senator tied with two others as the second-most liberal (as measured by the nonpartisan National Journal) has produced a ticket of Washington-centric liberalism reminiscent of the 1984 Walter Mondale-Geraldine Ferraro ticket, which lost 49 states.
This year the "better off" framing makes sense only if you believe, as Edwards's "two nations" rhetoric suggests that he does, that even with the nation at war, and after 10 quarters of economic expansion, many millions of voters in this affluent society will vote on the basis of economic resentments.
Perhaps the selection of Edwards expresses Kerry's desire to outsource, as it were, the nonsense part of his campaign. Edwards can talk economic foolishness for the constituency hungry for that -- the Democratic base -- while Kerry talks sense, as he understands it, about other matters.
The high liberalism quotient of the Kerry-Edwards ticket delights Republican frightmongers. But a Kerry win might not mean marked changes in either domestic or foreign policy.
Kerry says that as president he would repeal President Bush's tax breaks for the wealthy. Republicans say Kerry would pack the higher courts with liberal judges. But both sides are forgetting Congress -- and the most important change in governance in a generation. The change is the elevation, by both parties, to quasi-constitutional status of the Senate rule regarding cloture.
Under the new scorched-earth ethic of bitter partisanship in Washington, there is a supermajority requirement for significant action. Nothing as important as increasing the progressivity of the income tax or confirming important judges can happen without the support of 60 senators. Both candidates' promises, and their warnings about what the other fellow will do, should cause voters to ask the calming question: Will 60 senators support that?
Foreign policy is the realm of presidential freedom from Congress -- too much so -- and it is Kerry's primary interest.
But disregard, as voters will, Kerry's complaints about how Bush entered the war that Kerry (and Edwards) supported. Looking ahead, as voters do, what is the big difference between Kerry and Bush?
It is Kerry's vague promise to do something that he says Bush cannot do -- mend America's breach with "the world" and especially with Europe. But in seeking help in Iraq, Bush already has gone, Stetson in hand, to "the world," in the form of the United Nations, and to Europe, in his request for NATO to accept a mission there.
Furthermore, on his recent European trip Bush again aggravated many Europeans by urging the European Union to act favorably on Turkey's desire to join.
Few American voters have thought about this subject, but America has an interest in further integrating into the West -- Turkey has long been an important NATO member -- a mostly Muslim nation that is, so far, secular and democratic.
Hesitation by the E.U. is understandable. Admitting Turkey would extend the E.U.'s borders to Syria and Iraq. The reforms Turkey must make to become congruent with E.U. values are not complete. And smaller European nations, especially, worry about Turkey's size. The Financial Times notes that in 10 years, when Turkey's population might be 80 million, it could have more votes in E.U. affairs than Germany will have.
But if, as president, Kerry would abandon support for Turkey to avoid friction with Europe, he should say why. And if he would risk that friction on Turkey's behalf, he must acknowledge, to Bush's benefit, that international harmony is not the highest aim of foreign policy.