With the election only six weeks away, I thought it was the appropriate time for the prestigious, eagerly awaited, first quadrennial Jumping To Conclusion presidential endorsement.
First, the background: living in New Jersey is easy. It's a solidly Democratic state, which frees me to vote Libertarian without having to worry about its effect on the election one way or the other. This year, though, several polls from different, nonpartisan polling outfits have shown the New Jersey race to be a dead heat. This makes the decision more difficult; my vote is not just a symbolic one. It theoretically could affect the outcome. (Although the latest polls show it moving towards Kerry.) So what to do?
Do I support George Bush, who has done some things I like, but who is woefully flawed? Do I support Michael Badnarik, the Libertarian, even though he is even more of a total loon than Libertarians usually are, and even though it might help John Kerry get elected? Do I support Kerry to send a message to the Republicans that George Bush's woeful flaws are just too woeful to tolerate?
Start with the obvious: at least I know I won't be supporting Ralph Nader.
Now some people – thoughtful conservatives and libertarians such as Dan Drezner and Jacob Levy, not to mention Andrew Sullivan and almost everyone at, or interviewed by, Reason magazine – have abandoned George Bush and endorsed John Kerry, for the reason I suggested above: that Bush has been so bad on so many levels that he can't be rewarded with re-election. That the message needs to be sent to Bush and the Republicans that they need to shape up. And that gives me serious pause. If these people, who supported the war on terror, the war in Iraq, tax cuts, etc., reject Bush, then an automatic endorsement of him would be a serious mistake. (Indeed, about the only thoughtful conservatives/libertarians I know who are supporting Bush are Virginia Postrel and Eugene Volokh.)
Certainly, George Bush has many faults, too many to list here.
- An approach to fiscal policy that makes M.C. Hammer look like a responsible businessman.
- Defining "compassionate conservatism" to mean "Refusing to say no to any interest group or corporate interest that sticks its hand out."
- Being willing to accept any amount of pork the Republican Congress chooses to shovel.
- The urge to get re-elected overwhelming any principle: witness the steel tariffs, foolish and clearly doomed from the start, designed only to satisfy the electoral math. Or witness the abandonment of school vouchers in passing the No Child Left Behind bill, purely so that Bush could say he had passed a bipartisan education bill. Or witness the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
- Apparently terrible planning for Iraq. The decision to invade was right; the way it was done was right. But the postwar approach has been awful.
- An authoritarian impulse towards governing, acting as if the presidency should neither have to explain nor justify – nor even publicize – its actions.
- Refusing to hold subordinates accountable for anything, other than disloyalty. That George Tenet was allowed to remain on the job after 9/11 is ridiculous; that he wasn't fired the day no WMD turned up in Iraq is inexcusable. Abu Ghraib should have caused high level heads to roll – not because the mistreatment of prisoners was ordered at high levels, but because lower level people thought it would be deemed acceptable at high levels.
- A cavalier approach to the Constitution which says that it's no big deal to amend it to suit one's political whims.
- An approach to diplomacy that would make Attilla look tactful. Even when Bush gets policies right, he botches them. For instance, Kyoto. Bush was right to reject it. But the Kyoto treaty was Dead on Arrival before Bush even took office; the Senate passed a resolution, by a vote of 95-0, condemning it. And yet it wasn't enough for Bush to let it die a quiet death; he had to make a big show of denouncing it. Whether that was sincere or for the purpose of domestic politics is beside the point; it was pointless and gratuitous.
I could go on, but what's the point?
So of course, voting for Kerry would send the message that we need more accountability, that mistakes must be avoided, or corrected if made, that intentions aren't enough to justify decisions, that the Republican Congress can't be allowed to run rampant with no checks and balances. All important messages.
The problem is that voting for Kerry would also send the message that we need bigger government, that the Clinton-era approach to the Middle East is correct, that the major problem with international affairs is not how other countries behave but how the United States behaves, that more regulation is the solution to every problem, that a new government program is always a good thing, that socialized healthcare is a proper function of government, that the educational system exists for the benefit of teacher's unions, that the rich exist at the sufferance of the government, for the purpose of serving the poor, that the problem with our economy isn't overregulation but undertaxation. That the Republican party needs to move more towards the Democratic party.
No, for a conservative or libertarian to vote for Kerry to send a message would be, ultimately, self-defeating. On virtually every issue where Bush is wrong, Kerry is wronger. Or at best he offers a "me too," with an empty assurance that he'll do the job better. If you want to send a message, vote libertarian, not Democratic. That will at least send the right message.
Now, there's one other possibility: vote for Kerry because you endorse gridlock. That's a very tempting position. The Clinton-era gridlock, when a Republican Congress acted as a check on a Democratic president, resulted in a lot of good. We got free trade, we got welfare reform, we got budget surpluses, and we didn't get healthcare "reform." Kerry might be a lousy president, but Congress will keep him from enacting his proposals, and so government will stop growing and taxes won't rise.
There are three problems with that: the first is that a Democratic president, even checked by a Republican Congress, gets to appoint liberal judges. (They'll be "moderate," which is mediaspeak for "liberal, but sensible about it.") William Rehnquist's health condition should give us all pause. Federalism hangs by a thread; one more liberal on the court and we could be set back by thirty years. Affirmative action could be embraced with open arms rather than reluctantly. The second amendment would have no chance. And forget any hope that the federal courts will defend private property and the Takings clause.
The second is that there are no guarantees, as the last few years should show us, that the Congress would remain Republican for four years. People switch parties. Midterm elections create huge swings. It seems unlikely now, but so did the Gingrich revolution in 1994.
And the third, and most important, is that the president runs foreign policy. Congress has a say, to be sure. But the president is ultimately in charge. Which means that we probably cut and run from Iraq. No commitment to democracy there, certainly. No hard line on North Korea or Iran. Appeasement of the PLO. And we just can't risk that. Under Clinton it wasn't that big deal. Or didn't seem to be. In the post-9/11 world, we know what can happen.
So for those reasons, I have to stick with George Bush and give my first ever Republican presidential endorsement, after years of Democratic or libertarian lever pulling. Four more years, reluctantly. And here's to hoping that Bush, freed from concerns about re-election, governs more on principle and less on politics.