The election season is always hellish for people who fancy that they live by political principles, because at such a time “politics” becomes, even more than usually, a matter of show business and superficial calculation. Ever since 1980, when I bet the liberals of New York that Reagan would win easily (and didn’t have to buy my own lunch for months afterward), I have sympathized with the “prisoners’ dilemma” that faces liberals and leftists every four years. The shady term “lesser evil” was evolved to deal with this very trap. Should you endorse a Democrat in whom you don’t really believe? Is it time for that deep-breath third-party vote, or even angry abstention, of the sort that has tortured some Nation readers ever since they just couldn’t take Humphrey over Nixon? This magazine prints columnists who regularly describe the terms of the captivity with more emotion than I can now summon.
But absent from this triangular calculation is the irony of history. Do you know anybody who really, deeply wishes that Carter had been re-elected, or that Dukakis had won? Implicit but unstated, in the desire of the prisoner to escape, is the banal, unexciting assumption of our two-party oligopoly: Sometimes it’s objectively not so bad that the “other” party actually wins. Thus I ought to begin by stating my reasons to hope for a Kerry/Edwards victory.
Given my underlying stipulation, which is that this is a single-issue election and that that is a good and necessary thing, I have no formal quarrel with the Kerry/Edwards platform. It ostensibly calls for military victory over the alliance between autocracy and jihad. It does not shade the moral distinction that has to be made between “our” imperfect civilization and those who want to turn Islamic society into a medieval but still-lethal dust bowl. (Not even by MoveOn.org are we being told, of the racist janjaweed death squads in Sudan, that they are the expression of pitiable, deep-seated Muslim grievances.) The Kerry camp also rightly excoriates the President and his Cabinet for their near-impeachable irresponsibility in the matter of postwar planning in Iraq.
I can’t wait to see President Kerry discover which corporation, aside from Halliburton, should after all have got the contract to reconstruct Iraq’s oil industry. I look forward to seeing him eat his Jesse Helms-like words, about the false antithesis between spending money abroad and “at home” (as if this war, sponsored from abroad, hadn’t broken out “at home”). I take pleasure in advance in the discovery that he will have to make, that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a more dangerous and better-organized foe than Osama bin Laden, and that Zarqawi’s existence is a product of jihadism plus Saddamism, and not of any error of tact on America’s part. I notice that, given the ambivalent evidence about Saddam’s weaponry, Kerry had the fortitude and common sense to make the presumption of guilt rather than innocence. I assume that he has already discerned the difference between criticizing the absence of postwar planning and criticizing the presence of an anti-Saddam plan to begin with. I look forward, in other words, to the assumption of his responsibility.
Should the electors decide for the President, as I would slightly prefer, the excruciating personality of George Bush strikes me in the light of a second- or third-order consideration. If the worst that is said of him is true–that he is an idiotic and psychically damaged Sabbath-fanatic, with nothing between his large Texan ears–then these things were presumably just as true when he ran against Al Gore, and against nation-building and foreign intervention. It is Bush’s conversion from isolationism that impresses me, just as it is the parallel lapse into isolationism on Kerry’s part that makes me skeptical. You don’t like “smirking”? What about the endless smirks and smarmy hints about the Administration’s difficulties, whether genuine or self-imposed? The all-knowing, stupid smirks about the “secular” Saddam, or the innocuousness of prewar Iraq? The sneers about the astonishing success of our forces in Afghanistan, who are now hypocritically praised by many who opposed their initial deployment? This is to say nothing of the paranoid innuendoes I don’t have to name that are now part of pseudo-“radical” rumor-mongering and defamation. Whichever candidate wins, I shall live to see these smirks banished, at least.