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Four More Years?

By Sam Parry
May 13, 2004

Election 2004 may boil down to a choice between an incumbent president who thinks too little and a challenger who is criticized for thinking too much.

George W. Bush trusts his "gut" over intellect when making decisions. "His instincts are almost his second religion," author Bob Woodward noted in Bush at War. And once Bush has decided what to do, his aides assemble arguments to support or sell the decision, even if that requires hyping, slanting or distorting information.

By contrast, Sen. John Kerry absorbs the facts first, pondering questions from as many angles as possible before coming to conclusions that are often qualified and nuanced, an approach that opens him to criticism that he equivocates or will "flip-flop" on issues.

It is this difference in decision-making styles that rests at the center of Election 2004 – the difference between Bush the believer vs. Kerry the thinker.

`Bush is God'

As the American people have seen over the past three-plus years, Bush's snap judgments have sent the country lurching ill-prepared into trouble – from massive budget deficits to bloody wars. In spite of the harsh consequences of these decisions, many voters still admire Bush's decisiveness, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when they felt that strong action was needed.

Some Americans also find comfort in thinking that Bush illuminates his decisions with the light of his internal religious faith, that his personal judgments are inspired by the Almighty. “George BUSH is GOD” read one bumper sticker on a Dodge Ram SUV that I saw parked near Dupont Circle in Washington.

This notion of Bush's semi-divine status has come to pervade the thinking of many right-wing Christian Evangelicals, some of whom see Bush's unusual selection as president – after his popular-vote loss and the U.S. Supreme Court's intervention – as God's work.

Responding to this important conservative base, Bush has presented himself as one of the most overtly religious presidents in modern time. Though Bush rarely goes to church, he salts his speeches with religious references that are often missed by secular listeners but are intentional signals to Christian fundamentalists. He routinely cites the role of "the Almighty" in justifying his policies, including the war in Iraq.

Bush has even mentioned his belief that God intervened to put him in the White House. On the day of his second gubernatorial inauguration in Austin, TX, Bush gathered with some close friends and supporters at the governor’s mansion and, according to Richard Land, a director of the Southern Baptist Convention who was present, Bush told the group, “I believe that God wants me to be president.” [See PBS’s Frontline report, “The Jesus Factor”]

Bush reportedly learned this method of signaling to Christian fundamentalists by frequently referring to his Christian faith from Doug Wead, an adviser to his father's 1988 presidential campaign. Wead had written a series of memos on how to communicate with evangelical Christians. Wead's motto was "signal early and signal often," meaning that references to God should be put in speeches and meetings should be held with celebrity Evangelicals.

The younger George Bush immediately grasped the political significance of the advice, Wead said. "George would read my memos, and he would be licking his lips saying, 'I can use this to win Texas," Wead said in an interview with GQ Magazine [September 2003]

Since then, Bush demonstrated that he could use Wead's strategies to win not only in Texas, but across the country. Many conservative Christians now consider Bush the de facto head of the Christian right, supplanting longtime Evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

To Bush's detractors, however, his religious faith is suspect. Either it’s an Elmer Gantry-style political trick to seduce voters in the Bible Belt. Or if it’s real, it's a sign that he is overriding the country's traditional separation of church and state while he implements far-reaching policies that he thinks represent the will of God.

In either interpretation, Bush has used his personal religious faith to promote his political career.

Kerry's Decisions

Kerry's approach to decision-making almost couldn't be more different.

The Massachusetts Democrat is an empirical thinker, who enjoys the intellectual exercise of weighing competing arguments and collecting as many facts as possible before reaching a decision. His Socratic style and nuanced explanations sometimes leave an impression of a politician straddling all sides of an issue.

Kerry has demonstrated this style all his adult life. Even as a young man, Kerry made life-changing choices that on the surface seem contradictory. A Yale student in the 1960s, he opposed the Vietnam War, criticizing those policies in a 1966 class oration. Calling President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies “excessive interventionism,” Kerry said, “We have not really lost the desire to serve. We question the very roots of what we are serving.”

Still, Kerry signed up with the Navy understanding that he would likely be sent to Vietnam. He even volunteered for some of the most hazardous duty in the war, piloting fast boats up the Mekong River into Vietcong territory. Some shipmates described him as a leader who would deliberate on a problem but then act decisively – some would say rashly – in carrying out the mission. [For details, see Douglas Brinkley’s Tour of Duty]

While questioning the reasons for serving in Vietnam, Kerry nevertheless decided to serve. Then, he then returned home and became a leader in the movement to end the Vietnam War. Critics have deemed Kerry's actions hypocritical and erratic. Supporters have called his behavior intellectually honest and ennobling.

Kerry has followed a similar pattern for decision-making through his political career. Rather than starting with an answer, he works an issue. He thinks it through, sometimes favoring one side of the argument or the other, often in public. Kerry also tends to put off snap judgments on politically dicey issues, leaving himself room to adjust to changing circumstances.

Trade Debate

Trade is one political issue on which Kerry’s position has evolved over the last decade. In the early 1990s, Kerry was a staunch advocate of free trade, voting for trade agreement after trade agreement. Starting in the mid-to-late 1990s, however, Kerry's position on trade began to shift, as he began to recognize and address the harm that free trade was doing to environmental, human rights and labor protections.

In late 2001 and early 2002, Kerry wrote and sponsored an amendment to a trade bill granting the president “fast track” trade authority. The amendment sought to deny private companies the right to challenge health, labor, environmental or other regulations passed by governments in the public interest.

Under current trade policy modeled after NAFTA, companies can sue governments for passing standards to improve workers’ rights, environmental protections, human rights or any regulation that affects a company’s bottom line. These "Chapter 11" procedures elevate a corporation's right to profit over the public's right to see improved health and safety standards.

Kerry’s amendment proposed limiting a company’s right to sue governments to only matters covered under takings rights recognized by the U.S. Constitution. Though the Senate defeated Kerry's amendment, it represented a concrete shift in his trade policies toward fairer trade.

To Kerry’s detractors, however, this evolution on trade is an example of his flip-flopping, a central feature in the Bush campaign's negative commercials designed to "define" Kerry with the American people. Bush personally has made Kerry's alleged fuzziness on issues a punch line in his speeches.

Kerry's been "in Washington long enough to take both sides on almost every issue," Bush said at a Republican gala on May 5. “He voted for the Patriot Act, for NAFTA, for the No Child Left Behind Act, and for the use of force in Iraq. Now he opposes the Patriot Act, NAFTA, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the liberation of Iraq. My opponent’s positions on these issues reminded me of a saying we have in Texas about the weather: If you don’t like it, just wait a few minutes and it’ll change.”

The audience laughed and applauded. A casual C-SPAN watcher might have assumed that Bush knew what he was talking about regarding Kerry's positions. In reality, Bush's joke was based at best on distortions of those positions.

On the Patriot Act, for instance, Kerry favors revising, not scrapping, the law. He wants to keep the provisions that help law enforcement track and prosecute terrorists, such as closing the loophole on money-laundering practices used by terrorist networks and improving communication between federal agencies.

Kerry has, however, called for reform of the Patriot Act to, among other things, curtail the so-called “sneak and peek” provisions that expand the power of authorities to surreptitiously break into a home or business to monitor a suspects activities. Kerry’s main objection is that more should be done to ensure judicial oversight of these investigative activities.

On the general issue of civil rights, Kerry’s biggest applause line on the campaign trail is not that we need to rescind the Patriot Act, but that he would appoint an Attorney General “whose name is not John Ashcroft.”

On NAFTA and other trade issues, Kerry favors incorporating stronger labor, human rights and environmental protections, not jettisoning the trade laws altogether. His position on the No Child Left Behind Act is not to undo it, but to fully fund it.

Iraq War

On Iraq, one might not agree with Kerry's position, but it has been consistent. Kerry agreed that holding Saddam Hussein accountable was an important foreign policy objective, but said how that was done was equally or more important.

Kerry’s 6,500-word Senate speech in October of 2002 spelled out the actions that he felt must be undertaken to achieve that goal. Those conditions included giving weapons inspectors time to do their work, building a legitimate international coalition, and using military force only as a last resort.

"So the issue is not over the question of whether or not the threat is real, or whether or not people agree there is a threat," Kerry said. "It is over what means we will take, and when, in order to try to eliminate it."

Kerry stressed the importance of working with the United Nations. “I believe they made it clear that if the United States operates through the U.N., and through the Security Council, they--all of them--will also bear responsibility for the aftermath of rebuilding Iraq and for the joint efforts to do what we need to do as a consequence of that enforcement,” he said.

Kerry then warned the Bush administration not to turn its back on the U.N. “If the President arbitrarily walks away from this course of action--without good cause or reason--the legitimacy of any subsequent action by the United States against Iraq will be challenged by the American people and the international community. And I would vigorously oppose the President doing so,” Kerry said.

Though Kerry expressed no doubt about America’s ability to win a war unilaterally, he expressed grave concerns about the aftermath of war if conducted without adequate international support. He said:

"Let me be clear, the vote I will give to the President is for one reason and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies. In giving the President this authority, I expect him to fulfill the commitments he has made to the American people in recent days--to work with the United Nations Security Council to adopt a new resolution setting out tough and immediate inspection requirements, and to act with our allies at our side if we have to disarm Saddam Hussein by force."

So, Kerry doesn’t oppose the “liberation of Iraq” as Bush would have his audiences believe. What Kerry opposes is how Bush did it.

Backward Style

Possibly because Bush is viewed as a believer and not a thinker, factual flaws in his speeches or his policies pass with little notice. Yet, over and over again, America has witnessed the backward way Bush approaches a decision, starting with an answer and then filling in the supporting arguments – and leaving out contrary facts.

Last year, for instance, Bush rammed through a mish-mash of a prescription drug bill that covers some costs of drugs under some conditions using a formula so complex that it is still not well understood by American seniors. The bill also prevented the Department of Health and Human Services from negotiating down the price on drugs.

To keep fiscal conservatives from bolting over the program's price tag, the administration suppressed budget data showing that the program would cost tens of billions of dollars more than promised.

Likewise, the Iraq war was sold as necessary to head off a "gathering threat" from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and his alleged ties to al-Qaeda, though it's now clear that his supposedly trigger-ready stockpiles of WMD didn't exist and neither did any significant links to al-Qaeda.

In the wake of failing to find what was promised before the war, Bush has simply revised the historical justification for war. He claims that Hussein provoked the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 by refusing to let U.N. inspectors into Iraq.

In July 2003, Bush said about Hussein, “we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.” [For details, see the White House Web site.]

Bush reiterated that war-justifying claim on Jan. 27. Bush said, “We went to the United Nations, of course, and got an overwhelming resolution -- 1441 -- unanimous resolution, that said to Saddam, you must disclose and destroy your weapons programs, which obviously meant the world felt he had such programs. He chose defiance. It was his choice to make, and he did not let us in.”

In reality, Hussein did let the U.N. inspectors in and allowed them to examine any alleged weapons site of their choosing. The inspectors left only when U.S. officials said military action was imminent.

Four More Years?

Mounting U.S. casualties and photographic evidence of abused Iraqi prisoners seem finally to have awakened many Americans to the dreadful realities of this war. Mainstream America also is starting to ask questions about how the nation got into such a mess. That line of questioning will inevitably lead back to Bush's style of decision-making and the way his administration sells his "gut" judgments to the public.

To Bush's supporters, his pattern of trusting his instincts and then sticking to his decisions regardless of the consequences is a sign of resolve, strength and boldness. To them, Bush will remain an inspiring leader, while Kerry's tendency to weigh all sides will be seen as indecision and a lack of core beliefs.

After more than three years, however, other Americans are recognizing the dangers that can result from a political leader who believes his instincts are inspired by the Almighty and who rejects a pragmatic assessment of the limits of American power. To them, Kerry's more careful deliberations may become appealing.

Election 2004 will be the final word on whether Americans are ready to give another four years to Bush, the believer, or whether they have concluded that it's finally time for a president who thinks things through.

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