Cautious Kerry and Bull-Headed Bush

Election '04

Although the press has lately been fascinated by the fact that there appear to be only minor differences between what President Bush and John Kerry would do in Iraq over the next year or two, few would argue that the distinctions between the candidates are not substantial, on issues from health care to taxes to the environment.

But there is another critical difference, one that affects every issue and may have a greater effect on how we will ultimately compare their presidencies, should Kerry win in November. It's the most striking contrast in their personal and political styles. Depending on your perspective, Kerry is fearful, cautious, careful or considered. Bush, on the other hand, is decisive, resolute, bull-headed, or reckless.

As I have argued before, Bush's greatest strength and greatest weakness is that his has, in many ways, been a fearless presidency. The public was lukewarm toward the idea of tax cuts, particularly ones targeted largely at the wealthy, but Bush pushed them through Congress anyway. Anyone without ideological blinders on could have seen that invading and occupying Iraq would at best be difficult and costly and at worst an utter disaster, but Bush forged ahead nonetheless. When asked the biggest mistake he has made, Bush couldn't come up with one.

And it shouldn't have been too much of a surprise. Just before his inauguration, Fox News' Brit Hume told Bush that Democrats were suggesting that given the way he took office, he should reach across the aisle and govern from the center. Bush's response: "Too bad." He has governed as if he won a 49-state landslide and had a mandate for major change.

This isn't to say that the Bushies' endless assertions that they don't care about polls are true; they aren't (no one knows exactly how much they've spent on polling since he took office, but estimates are in the millions). And it doesn't mean that Bush is above retracting a policy proposal if it falls flat with the public (heard him mention the manned mission to Mars lately?). But on the big issues, Bush decides what he wants to do and does it. Not only does he not care what those who disagree think, he doesn't even want to hear it. When asked what he thought of the enormity of the protest against war with Iraq (as far as anyone knows, the single largest organized protest in human history), Bush said, "You know, size of protest, it's like deciding, well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group." Bush has said he doesn't read newspapers, because "The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world." Safe in his cocoon, Bush never has to consider that anyone might have a different view.

As for John Kerry, he is, if anything, too concerned about what those who disagree with him think (perhaps a remnant of his days as a debate champion, where understanding your opponents' case is critical to success). The Bush campaign's endlessly repeated charge that Kerry is a "flip-flopper" is not exactly on the mark, and not just because they apply it to everything Kerry says or does ("A Bush aide today charged that Kerry's breakfast of eggs and bacon was an obvious flip-flop, since he had corn flakes the day before. 'John Kerry can't even be consistent on what he eats,' said the spokesman.").

The problem isn't flip-flopping, the problem is that on the most contentious issues, Kerry's impulse seems to be to articulate his position in such a way that it isn't always easy to tell where he stands. That doesn't mean he doesn't have strong feelings; it's more a matter of the way he articulates them, in sentences full of subordinate clauses that lay out the other side's case and offer far too much context. Perhaps Kerry is like a chess master, thinking four or five moves ahead, or perhaps he is governed by fear. It's impossible for outside observers to know.

In a way, this particular kind of caution is admirable and prudent; Kerry acknowledges that the other side may have a point, and that things may not turn out as he'd like them to. If that had occurred to President Bush, he might have encouraged the Pentagon to give some thought to the possibility that U.S. troops wouldn't be welcomed in Iraq with flowers, and fewer of those troops might have died.

But Kerry's caution emerges on issues large and small, like his vote to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq, which he followed immediately with statements critical of the President's moves (thereby allowing him to say "I was right" no matter the outcome), to his post-September 11 adjustment of his longtime opposition to the death penalty.

In the latter case, Kerry has modified his stand to say that he now supports the death penalty for terrorists. One can accept the change by offering the somewhat tired if true cliché that September 11 changed everything. But there is an alternative theory, that as he prepared his run for the presidency, visions of Willie Horton danced in Kerry's head, and he foresaw (correctly no doubt) Republican ads saying, "John Kerry opposes the death penalty - even for Osama bin Laden." They can't run those ads now.

We see the results of Bush's lack of fear - the endless quagmire of Iraq, record deficits, Washington gripped by the bitterest partisanship anyone can remember. All this from a man who campaigned by saying he was "a uniter, not a divider," and wanted a "humble" foreign policy. So it's hard to know what implications Kerry's campaign style has for his potential presidency.

Kerry is spending a lot of time these days talking about how strong he is. But at the same time, he's still stepping carefully. With Bush growing more unpopular by the day as he reaps what his fearlessness sowed, Kerry's caution may be enough to get him to the White House.

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