It's over now -- a campaign that has assumed unprecedented heights of rancor, with the United States poised either to continue business as usual according to the gospel of Republican George W. Bush, or to shift gears in yet-uncharted ways with Democratic challenger John Kerry. Polls indicate that, as in 2000, the race is too close to call, and not a few observers fret at the implications for representative democracy of another dead heat.
The questions the American electorate face are enormous -- not least the future direction of the republic's intertwined Middle East and global security policies.
As Americans head to the polls, joined by several hundred thousand ex-pats in Canada who cast absentee ballots, the incumbent stands as the prime focus of debate. Bush has taken it upon himself to enforce a revolution in world affairsa policy based on unilateral action, the right to defuse preemptively what he defines as potential attacks, and the spreading of market totalitarianism in the guise of freedom and liberty, throughout the world. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, with world good will overflowing, the United States overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and assured citizens of the swift capture of 9/11 architect Osama bin Ladin, "dead or alive," and the emergence of democracy and order. Neither promise was fulfilled, even when it seemed that the U.S. cornered bin Ladin in the hills of Tora Bora.
Then, with plans to take out Iraq's Saddam Hussein in preparation even before 9/11, the U.S. went to war to overthrow that dictator. This campaign, part of a larger neoconservative program that saw Iraq as a stepping stone in bringing free market economics and democracy to Iran, Jordan, and the entire Middle East, seemed at first as easy as cutting butterstatues of Hussein toppled and Iraqis appeared to welcome the Americans. More important, a majority of Americans embraced the president's twinning of the terrorist al Qaeda network and the Iraqi dictator. World opinion then and now considered this association bogus, and when Iraqi insurgents and outside fighters rallied against the American occupation, the U.S. victory became pyrrhic.
The Republican Party argument that the war in Iraq is part of the war on terror is now true only because Bush made it so. The devastation in the regionthe bombings, the executions, the beheadings and other daily atrocitiesare now available instantaneously as Internet pornography, with no end in sight. Strangely, the polls suggest that more Americans believe that Bush is better equipped than Kerry to handle the war on terror, perhaps because they have not yet recovered from the attacks of 9/11. Here support for Bush becomes a primary symptom of nation-wide post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yet the president remains steadfast in his defense of the Iraq project Evangelical religious prophecy dominates the Bush worldview, and this is frightening for the future of a country with a Constitution that mandates the separation of Church and State. It is even more daunting for the world. Ironically, in framing his campaign arguments in increasingly eschatological terms, Bush sounds at times like a mirror image of his nemesis, bin Ladin. For this born-again president has stated repeatedly that God speaks to (and works through) him to spread freedom everywhere, and has taken America's side in the war on terror. The latter point stems from the Cold War with atheistic Soviet communism. The first two points suggest in a worst-case scenario nothing less than the imminent demise of the world. And there is enough hypocrisygiven the prominence of free-market neoconservatives like Vice President Dick Cheney and presidential adviser Karl Rove, media hatchet-men Bill O~RReilly and Rush Limbaugh and the Swift Boat Veterans Against Kerryto reprise the story of Elmer Gantry, novelist Sinclair Lewis~Rs flawed Bible-belting preacher of the 1920s.
Yet the reach of conservative religion into politics makes ~Svalues~T a key campaign reference point, with Catholic Bishops in some venues warning that a vote for the Democrat Kerry, a divorced Catholic who favours woman~Rs right to choose in reproductive politics, will warrant a trip to confession. Married to a woman whose debate debut made it clear that she is no Stepford wife, Kerry has had to fight an uphill battle on the values front, much as he did thirty-five years ago in his principled opposition to the Vietnam War following heroic service in that conflict. This he has done, in a manner sufficiently convincing to the electorate, to pull even with the incumbent. So here we sit, nervously loquacious at the edge of an abyss, awaiting tonight~Rs electoral outcome. We might have to wait a while. There are a number of things that could go wrong with the process, as a friend noted in suggesting that scrutineers from South Africa or Costa Rica should attend polls in Florida to prevent another round of skullduggery. And then, of course, there is Ralph Nader. And bin Laden.
In this mean street of a campaign, alas, we have heard little of the burgeoning national deficit and its implication for the future, of the disintegrating state of American education and health care, of the need to confront imminent environmental catastrophe, of the future role of the Supreme Court in preserving and extending civil liberties, and of whether the United States still considers itself both in and of the world. These are not the simple issues that Bush portrays as faith-based questions; they are complicated matters that Kerry stands ready to confront as political propositions demanding intelligence, compromise, and will.
Kerry will triumph. Not only have recent polls moved in his direction, but pollsters also have missed a huge cell-phone constituency that is in essence progressive. Pollsters also have encountered another constituency that has tabbed "undecided" lest support for Kerry be inscribed in John Ashcroft's ever-growing files of subversion.Geoff Smith, a dual citizen, supported Kerry with an absentee ballot, his first U.S. vote since 1968.