"THEODORE! with all thy faults -- "
-- The New York Sun's 1904
endorsement of Teddy Roosevelt
This column has expressed abundant skepticism about the grandiosity of George W. Bush's foreign policy. And about his passivity about spending (he has vetoed nothing), his enlargement of the welfare state (the prescription drug entitlement), his expansion of inappropriate federal responsibilities (concerning education from kindergarten through 12th-grade, through the No Child Left Behind Act) and his complicity in vandalizing the Constitution (he signed the McCain-Feingold bill, which rations political speech). Still, this column prefers Bush.
Reasonable people can question the feasibility of Bush's nation-building and democracy-spreading ambitions. However, having taken up that burden, America cannot prudently, or decently, put it down. The question is: Which candidate will most tenaciously and single-mindedly pursue victory? The answer is: Not John Kerry, who is multiple-minded about most matters.
Tuesday's winner will not start from scratch but from where we are now, standing with the women of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Back in Washington recently, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said those women were warned that Taliban remnants would attack polling places during the Oct. 9 elections. So the women performed the ritual bathing and said the prayers of those facing death. Then, rising at 3 a.m., they trekked an hour to wait in line for the polls to open at 7 a.m. In the province of Kunar an explosion 100 meters from a long line of waiting voters did not cause anyone to leave the line.
Which candidate can be trusted to keep faith with these people? Surely not the man whose party is increasingly influenced by its Michael Moore faction. Surely not the man whose most important vote in his 20 Senate years opposed using force to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. Iraqi forces had crossed an international border to eradicate a sovereign nation, but Kerry does not regret voting to oppose the forceful reversal of this aggression.
However, his career is one of multiple tepid regrets. Carefully parsed, his rhetorical ambiguities, which seem designed to discourage deciphering, suggest that he regrets not only his vote for Justice Antonin Scalia but also votes for the 2002 Iraq resolution, for No Child Left Behind, for the Patriot Act.
When he intimates that medical marvels will quickly follow his termination of a nonexistent "ban" on stem cell research, his dishonesty exceeds even his philistinism. His synthetic alarm about possible conscription would cost him his reputation for honesty, had he one after warning seniors that Bush will cut Social Security benefits up to 45 percent.
Regarding entitlements, Kerry's campaign has been of breathtaking banality. Some great challenges arrive without preambles -- the Depression, Pearl Harbor, Sept. 11, 2001. Others are precisely predicted. One such is the baby boomers' coming retirement. America's economy cannot retain its dynamism during this demographic deluge if it must support the welfare state as currently configured.
But Kerry is dismally believable when he vows that nothing will be done about this during his presidency. He promises no increase in Social Security taxes and no cut in benefits, and he shows no interest in original thinking about other ameliorative measures.
He is even banal in the fright-mongering that is his substitute for thinking about the problem. It is fair for him to warn about substantial transition costs associated with Bush's plan to allow Americans to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in a few approved equities funds. But his more characteristic response is to cry "Enron!" By which he means either that American capitalism is too corrupt to invest in, or most Americans are too obtuse to competently invest, or both.
A defining difference between the candidates and their parties concerns Americans' aptitudes for navigating modern society and for setting social policy through representative institutions. Which brings us to the next president's role in shaping the federal judiciary.
Kerry is more than merely comfortable with liberalism's preference for achieving its aims through judicial fiats rather than political persuasion -- by litigation rather than legislation. That preference for change driven by activist judges rather than elected representatives expresses liberalism's condescension about the normal American's capacity for thriving without government tutelage.
Bush sometimes confuses certitude with certainty, but he understands that to govern is to choose, and that some choices must make one lonely. Kerry constantly calls to mind a three-time Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan: "The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver. I will look up the arguments later."
So this column's conclusion is: "GEORGE! with all thy faults."