When John Kerry speaks tonight he may promise, again, to cut corporate taxes and increase the size of the military by 40,000 people. Both ideas are sensible -- and tactical. They are supposed to blunt Republican charges that he stands on one side of a vast ideological chasm separating the parties. Democrats make similar, and similarly silly, charges about this election as the hinge on which American and world history will turn.
What is strange about politics today is not just that it is so passionate -- particularly on the part of Democrats unhinged by their loathing of George W. Bush -- but that the passions seem displaced. They are not merely disproportionate to the parties' policy differences; they seem almost unrelated to those differences.
Would Democrats loathe Bush much less if Sept. 11 and the Iraq war had never happened? The depth of their loathing of him after the Florida unpleasantness but before his inauguration suggests otherwise. And Republicans relishing -- the verb fits -- their fear of Kerry cannot have missed the fact that, like most political careerists whose compass is caution, he actually represents a remarkably unremarkable response to Bush's policies.
Like Bush, Kerry says that success in Iraq is necessary, and he defines success as Bush does: Iraq secure, prosperous and democratic. The drama of a Kerry presidency would not be in his attempts to enlist "the world" in helping to achieve that but in his reaction to his failure to do so.
Kerry says he would not rule out preemptive military action, but Bush probably exhausted presidential ability to take such action by doing so against a nation that lacked the attribute that could justify it -- possession of weapons of mass destruction by a regime likely to use them. Yes, the world is better off because Bush rid Iraq of the regime that filled the mass graves, but he does not argue that human rights horrors justify preemptive war.
The first crisis of the next presidential term probably will be Iran's approaching possession of nuclear weapons. Bush's policy already is Kerryesque: Ask "the world" to help. It is not working.
Domestically, the parties differ primarily about the modalities for administering -- and expanding -- the welfare state. These are not trivial differences, but neither are they akin to those that existed in living memory when the parties differed about whether there should be a welfare state. Bush's interest in serious reforms of Social Security and Medicare has been relegated by his war preoccupations to a second term, for which they would be unsuited by his lame-duck status, even if Congress were not paralyzed by acrimony.
In 2000, six years after Republicans gained 52 House seats by promising, among much else, to abolish the Department of Education, candidate Bush promised to increase federal involvement in the quintessential state and local responsibility -- primary and secondary education. And he has delivered. In 2000, he, like Vice President Al Gore, promised to enrich, with a prescription drug benefit, the entitlement menu of the emblematic achievement of the Great Society, Medicare. And he has delivered. Neither Bush nor Kerry is illuminating about reducing the deficit, or about coping with something that will begin in the fourth year of the next presidential term -- the retirement of 77 million baby boomers.
So why the bitter sense, on both sides, of apocalypse soon if the other side prevails? Because at last we have the parties that intellectuals have long wanted.
Until now America has never had an almost complete congruence between ideological and party identities. A great sorting out has put almost all liberals in one party, conservatives in the other. Intellectuals, with their hankering for clarity and coherence, have long desired this condition. Europe has long had it. Now that Americans have it, their politics has become what it is.
The tone-setting activists of both parties exemplify an unpleasant product of modern government: the entitlement mentality. They believe not merely that their party deserves to govern because of the superior wisdom of its policies but that they are entitled to govern because of their moral and intellectual superiority.
Tonight Kerry speaks in the city where Ralph Waldo Emerson espoused a belief that much contemporary historiography, with its egalitarian bent, rejects -- that "there is properly no history; only biography." Historians may say history is made as much by the pepper trade or scullery maids as by presidents, but Kerry's biography matters greatly because presidents do. His biography suggests more banality than menace, although banality in high office can be its own kind of menace.