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The Incidental Candidate

in the privacy of the voting booth, it’s likely I will — for the first time since 1972 — vote for the Democratic candidate, John Kerry.

I will do so bereft of any illusions. In voting, I will not be “taking back America,” or even “taking back my democracy.” Nor do I believe I will be choosing hope over fear, smart over dumb or right over wrong.

I will be choosing between the two awful choices put in front of me by a stacked electoral system that gave me no real voice in the primary, and an equally insignificant role in the general election. (Memo to myself: Relocate to Des Moines for 2008.)

Nor, when I mark Kerry’s name, will I tell myself the lie that in doing so I am somehow rejuvenating, reforming or rebuilding the Democratic Party. The same old execrable machine is still firmly in place, with the Chief Con Man Terry McAuliffe still at its head. The Democrats remain a “stale party of ideas,” as the Service Employees International Union’s president, Andy Stern, put it on the first day of the DNC this past summer — this from the leader of a union that has given $65 million to defeat Bush.

The Kerry Democrats not only have failed to present any new ideas to America, they’ve taken some very important ones off the table. Insistence on comprehensive campaign-finance reform — perhaps the single greatest way to break open our ossified system — has been cashed in for celebration of so-called 527 groups financed by billionaire George Soros. Universal health coverage, already bastardized by the Clintons, now stands replaced by a patchwork proposal by Kerry that would cover maybe a third of those now uninsured. Support for a just, two-sided settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has morphed into buttressing Ariel Sharon’s wall of infamy. Moving from free trade to “fair trade” has been displaced by a proposal of new corporate tax incentives.

Nor do I think that George W. Bush is necessarily the worst, or the most dangerous, or the most whatever president in history. Candidates are products of their historical times and circumstances — some more perilous than others.

I remember that Tuesday in October 1962, buying an extra Good Humor bar off the truck at John Burroughs Junior High, thinking that that night might be our last before a Caribbean-triggered atomic holocaust (this after reading about Howard Dean’s favorite president — Harry Truman — who uncorked the nuclear age over Japan). I remember Lyndon Johnson scuttling a century’s worth of civil rights struggle with his imperial venture in Vietnam. Combine that with Nixon’s tenure, and you come up with more than 3 million dead. Add in the aftershocks in Cambodia, and you’re at a cool 5 million or so. No sooner had Vietnam wound down than there was Nixon placing our forces on full nuclear alert over the 1973 Yom Kippur war. I starkly remember that five-bell bulletin clanging over a Reuters teletype in Cairo, where I was covering the war as a young reporter. I scrambled for an overseas phone to hear my family’s voice once more. And during most of this time, J. Edgar Hoover, vengefully in charge of our federal police, was imposing an unchecked, fully covert Patriot Act all his own.

Our times are also fraught with great peril — threats that overlap and transcend Bush and Kerry. I am not going to diddle myself by claiming this is the most important election in my lifetime. Very little, if anything, that will determine the fate of the republic is going to be settled.

As Bill Greider wisely puts it in this week’s Nation, 2004 will not be any sort of historic watershed. In the wake of Gore’s ignominious flop and after September 11, Bush had a unique opportunity to construct a Republican dynasty that might have held power for decades — if only he had governed from the center. By ceding his key ministries to the neocons, he has created an awesome backlash that will haunt him for the next four years, if re- elected. A second Bush term seems doomed from the outset. And my liberal friends who have worked themselves into a lather on this election ought to get their heads around the not-too-complex notion that Bush can win the election and still lose.

The inverse, unfortunately, is also true. A Kerry victory could lead to some historic regrets. It’s nothing short of amazing to ponder what a wonderful candidate Bush is to have as an opponent, the sort of rival you dream about between campaign stops. Now think of the difficulty that Kerry has had in beating him. Kerry’s a candidate almost incidental to his own campaign. The Democrats decided back in Florida that they would do everything possible to knock Bush out this time around, and Kerry — somehow or another — got the nod to lead the ticket. You call this leadership?

On the two big issues that face us — the war and a shifting, treacherous economy — Kerry has offered up but the most ambiguous of bromides. His chances of internationalizing the war in Iraq are slim. His most likely first move will be more — not fewer — U.S. troops. And then what? On the economy, heaven knows that the globalist rip tides of outsourcing and downsizing far predate Bush’s Frankenstein-ish experiments with tax cuts for the wealthy. Indeed, no administration other than Clinton’s was more fully committed to the free-trade policies that have hit Ohio and Pennsylvania like so many tsunamis, wiping out factories in the breakers and then carrying the scattered jobs back out overseas. A Kerry administration will hardly stand as a secure breakwater against the pounding forces stirred by the international markets.

So why even my “likely” vote for Kerry? Like all Democratic presidents, he would make better judicial appointments and he would more tightly regulate (yet hardly salvage) the environment (further proof that underneath all the hysteria this is a more routine than historic election). His tax policies would be marginally less regressive. He might not stack federal regulatory boards with quite as many corporate stooges.

On the long-term ills that threaten the republic, I have no faith in Kerry. But I suppose there’s some good in that one candidate — who for whatever reasons — stirs a certain optimism in his followers. It’s not the first time in history, Dr. Dean, that a candidate has been unworthy of his followers. While I don’t share the buoyancy, I can vote for the idea of it. And that’s what I’m reduced to in this closed political system. In what is sold to me as the most crucial election ever, I am voting not for a choice, or a candidate, or a program. I’m voting for a change in mood. It ain’t much.