Friday, August 27, 2004

From today's Wall Street Journal:

Niall Ferguson: Republicans for Kerry
Wall Street Journal, August 27

It is doubtless not the most tactful question to ask on the eve of the Republican convention, but might it not be better for American conservatism if George Bush failed to win a second term?

Yes, I know, the official GOP line is that nothing could possibly be as bad for the U.S. as a Kerry presidency. According to the Bush campaign, John Kerry's record of vacillation and inconsistency in the Senate would make him a disastrously indecisive POTUS -- an IMPOTUS, as it were. By contrast, they insist, Mr. Bush is decisiveness incarnate. And when this president makes a decision, he sticks to it with Texan tenacity (no matter how wrong it turns out to be).

It is a mistake, however, to conceive of each presidential contest as an entirely discrete event, a simple, categorical choice between two individuals, with consequences stretching no further than four years.

To be sure, there are many tendencies in American political life that will not be fundamentally affected by the outcome of November's election. For example, contrary to what Mr. Kerry claimed in his convention speech, there are profound structural causes for the widening rift between the U.S. and its erstwhile allies on the European continent that no new president could possibly counteract. And regardless of whether Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry is in the White House next year, the U.S. will still be stuck with the dirty work of policing post-Saddam Iraq with minimal European assistance other than from Britain -- which, by the same token, will remain America's most reliable military ally . . . regardless of whether Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry is in the White House.

Nor would the election of Mr. Kerry have the slightest impact on the ambition of al Qaeda to inflict harm on the U.S. Even if Americans elected Michael Moore as president, Osama bin Laden would remain implacable.

In geopolitical terms, at least, what happens on Nov. 2 will change very little indeed. Yet in other respects -- and particularly in terms of party politics -- the election's consequences could be far-reaching. It is not too much to claim that the result could shape American political life for a decade or more.

Fourteen years ago, in another English-speaking country, an unpopular and in many respects incompetent conservative leader secured re-election by the narrowest of margins and against the run of opinion polls. His name was John Major and his subsequent period in office, marred as it was by a staggering range of economic, diplomatic and political errors of judgment, doomed the British Conservative Party to (so far) seven years in the political wilderness. I say "so far" because the damage done to the Tories' reputation by the Major government of 1992-1997 was such that there is still no sign whatsoever of its ever returning to power.

Many Conservatives today would now agree that it would have been far better for their party if Mr. Major had lost the election of 1992. For one thing, the government deserved to lose. The decision to take the U.K. into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism had plunged the British economy into a severe recession, characterized by a painful housing market bust. For another, the Labour candidate for the premiership, Neil Kinnock, had all the hallmarks of a one-term prime minister. It was Mr. Kinnock's weakness as a candidate that enabled Mr. Major to scrape home with a tiny majority of 21 out of 651 seats in the Commons. Had Mr. Kinnock won, the exchange rate crisis of September 1992 would have engulfed an inexperienced Labour government and the Conservatives, having replaced Mr. Major with a more credible leader, could have looked forward to an early return to office.

Instead, the next five years were a kind of Tory dance of death, in which the party not only tore itself apart over Europe, but also helped to tear Bosnia apart by refusing all assistance to those resisting Serbian aggression. Meanwhile, a spate of petty sexual and financial scandals discredited one minister after another, making a mockery of Mr. Major's call for a return to traditional family values ("Back to Basics"). All of this provided the perfect seedbed for the advent of New Labour and the election by a landslide of Tony Blair in May 1997. Well, Mr. Blair is still in Downing Street and, having weathered the worst of the political storm over Iraq, seems likely to remain there for some years to come.

Could something similar be about to happen in the U.S.? In my view, the Bush administration, too, does not deserve to be re-elected. Its idée fixe about regime change in Iraq was not a logical response to the crisis of 9/11. Its fiscal policy has been an orgy of irresponsibility. Given the hesitations of independent voters in the swing states, polls currently point to a narrow Bush defeat. Yet Mr. Kerry, like Mr. Kinnock, is the kind who can blow an election in a single soundbite. It's still all too easy to imagine George Bush, like John Major, scraping home by the narrowest of margins (not least, of course, because Mr. Bush did just that four years ago).

But then what? The lesson of British history is that a second Bush term could be more damaging to the Republicans and more beneficial to the Democrats than a Bush defeat. If he secures re-election, President Bush can be relied upon to press on with a foreign policy based on pre-emptive military force, to ignore the impending fiscal crisis (on the Cheney principle that "Deficits don't matter") and to pursue socially conservative objectives like the constitutional ban on gay marriage. Anyone who thinks this combination will serve to maintain Republican unity is dreaming; it will do the opposite. Meanwhile, the Dems will have another four years to figure out what the Labour Party finally figured out: It's the candidate, stupid. And when the 2008 Republican candidate goes head-to-head with the American Tony Blair, he will get wiped out.

The obvious retort is that American politics is not British politics. No? Go back half a century, to 1956, and recall the events that led up to the re-election of another Republican incumbent. Sure, Eisenhower didn't have much in common personally with George W. Bush, except perhaps the relaxed work rate. But Ike was no slouch when it came to regime change. In 1953 a CIA-sponsored coup in Iran installed as dictator Mohammed Reza Shah. In 1954 Ike enunciated the "domino theory," following the defeat of France in Vietnam and invaded Guatemala to install another pro-American dictator. In 1955 he shelled the Chinese isles of Quemoy and Matsu.

Yet Eisenhower's refusal to back the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt following Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal, and his acquiescence in the Soviet invasion of Hungary, should have alerted American voters to the lack of coherence in his strategy. Predictably, Ike's re-election was followed by a string of foreign-policy reverses -- not least the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq, Castro's takeover of Cuba and the shooting down of Gary Powers's U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. These were the setbacks that lent credibility to JFK's hawkish campaign in 1960: And Kennedy's victory handed the rest of the decade to the Democrats.

Like Adlai Stevenson before him, Mr. Kerry has an aura of unelectability that may yet prove fatal to his hopes. But a Stevenson win in 1956 would have transformed the subsequent course of American political history. Conservatives may ask themselves with good reason whether defeat then might ultimately have averted the much bigger defeats they suffered in the '60s. In just the same way, moderate Republicans today may justly wonder if a second Bush term is really in their best interests. Might four years of Mr. Kerry not be preferable to eight years or more of really effective Democratic leadership?

Mr. Ferguson, professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, is author of "Colossus: The Price of America's Empire" (Penguin, 2004).

Monday, August 02, 2004


I was at Wrigley Field last Friday for the inauguration of the 350 lb. load-bearing nets, which surround the bottom of the upper deck. Though I have faith in Cubs President Andy MacPhail to keep the park safe (they began a full inspection of the park a week prior to the first home game after the "incident"), I think the nets were definitely installed to appease the city's biggest White Sox fan/Trib hater, Mayor Daley. (For those of you out of the loop on Chicago news, three tiny pieces of concrete had recently fallen and Daley/White Sox fans rose quite a stink over it.) Anyways, the game was great, as the Cubs rallied in the 6th inning and never looked back. They won over the Phillies, 10-7. More pictures can be seen here. Posted by Hello