Never in the modern history of United States politics has a presidential election garnered so much attention beyond its borders. Incumbent President George W. Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney, are challenged by Democratic Senator John F. Kerry and his run- ning mate, North Carolina Senator John Edwards. This is the first such election since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, altered the course of the Bush presidency. Like it or not, we have a stake in the outcome.
Three years after 9/11, the United States is involved in a bloody war in Iraq where over 1000 Americans have lost their lives. The decision to invade Iraq originates with the so-called Bush doctrine of a pre-emp- tive strike should America’s security be threatened. This policy can be attrib- uted to the sense of vulnerability creat- ed by the terror of 9/11. The rationale for the removal of Saddam Hussein from power rested primarily with intel- ligence reports indicating that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s) and was friendly with terrorists involved in 9/11. A presidential com- mission has since discredited these intelligence reports thereby resulting in a serious credibility gap on the part of the Bush administration on the Iraq war in this election year. The question of trust could therefore emerge as a legitimate concern in the campaign.
The current presidential campaign is being waged with the issue of security and the war in Iraq in the forefront of the political debate. While America faces many other important challenges and problems, it is becoming more apparent that the candidate who best succeeds in defining his ability to deal with both security at home and the conflict in Iraq will win the election of November 2.
As Canadians, we cannot be indif- ferent to the events occurring in the political world south of the border. In the days following the tragedy of 9/11, the free world stood with America and committed to destroying the architects of this terror, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network. The bipartisan reflexes of the American political class rose in unison in supporting their pres- ident in his resolve to combat and eliminate world terrorism.
The decision to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban regime, sympathetic to al-Qaeda, was approved by the United Nations. Canada committed troops and Canadi- ans backed their government in its efforts to fight terror alongside the United States government.
In the State of the Union address in January 2002, President Bush identi- fied three nations (Iran, Iraq and North Korea) as an axis of evil. This reference unleashed a policy aimed at acting against anyone who represents a threat to the security of the American people. While the tragedy of 9/11 conditioned much of this policy, the new Bush doc- trine represented a significant depar- ture from conventional US foreign policy. While there was a Coalition of the Willing, there was equally a Coalition of the Unwilling, that left many of America’s closest allies, includ- ing Canada, opposed to the war and unconvinced of the reasons for it.
Since the ”œmission accomplished” celebration on a US aircraft-carrier in May 2003, the US has lost over 1000 troops with over 6000 injured. Thousands of Iraqis have died and the resistance by so-called insurgents and terrorists has intensified in recent weeks. It would appear that the transi- tional government of Iraq and the coalition troops are in for a long haul. While the reaction to 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan unified much of the free world, the war in Iraq has done the opposite. Even with current partners such as Britain, Australia and Italy, public support for their respective government’s participation in the war has eroded seriously. The effect in the United States has defined the nature of the presidential campaign of 2004.
In the mid-term elections of 2002, President Bush registered some impor- tant gains in Congress and had an approval rating of over 60 percent. The Bush performance in the mid-term elections helped legitimize his presi- dency especially in the light of his con- troversial win in 2000, losing the popular vote to Al Gore, but winning the electoral college in a ruling by the US Supreme Court.
The unforeseen impact of the candidacy of former Vermont governor, Howard Dean, who strongly opposed the rush to war in Iraq, sud- denly transformed the Democratic race for the pres- idential nomination. The eventual nominee, John Kerry, who had initially supported Bush’s decision to pressure Iraq to give up their WMDs or face war, now began to redefine his position, arguing for a more multinational and diplomat- ic approach. The consequent ambiguity on Kerry’s part has affected his ability to stay on message ever since.
The challenge for Bush is to make the case for a safer America at home by removing threats abroad. His argument at the Republican National Convention was that the world was safer without Saddam Hussein and the Taliban in Afghanistan. By cleverly linking his policies with a post 9/11 world, Bush has been able to make some gains on his opponent. The question remains: Will he be able to turn this proposition of keeping America safe into the ballot- box question? If so, he wins.
Kerry successfully wrestled the momentum of the Dean cam- paign by presenting a program of enhancing America’s respect in the world, strengthening the economy and dealing with crucial social issues such as healthcare for the uninsured and improving education. His presi- dential allure along with his war hero status represented a viable challenge to a commander-in-chief with declining popularity.
Throughout most of 2004, Kerry led in the polls or was within the margin of error. Bad headlines from Iraq brought Bush’s ratings down and a less robust eco- nomic recovery gave Kerry ammunition to lead the charge against an incumbent president. Prior to the Republican con- vention, many were seeing the real possi- bility of another one-term Bush presidency. In the days immediately fol- lowing the Republican convention, how- ever, Kerry was placed on the defensive in part because of Bush’s simple message and decisive demeanour.
As we approach the November 2 elec- tion, the challenge for Kerry is to enlarge the definition of security to embody eco- nomic, social and environmental con- cerns and show that the decision to go to war in Iraq was the wrong course for cre- ating a safer America. As Ronald Reagan once asked in the 1980 campaign: Are you better off four years later?
The case against Bush can be com- pelling. His presidency is the first since that of Herbert Hoover (1929-1932) to have a net loss in jobs. There is a grow- ing belief that free trade agreements have hurt the job recovery efforts of the Bush administration and this can play into the hands of Democratic strate- gists. Still over 40 million Americans have no healthcare insurance and 35 million live in poverty, of which 11 mil- lion are children. Withdrawal from international treaties such as ABM with Russia and refusal to join the Kyoto protocol on the environment demon- strate a unilateral approach by the Bush administration that seemed to be a fore- runner to its Iraq policy. Currently, the United States is suffering 90 percent of the casualties in Iraq and is shouldering 90 percent of the costs. The fiscal situa- tion has deteriorated markedly since 2001 as the US budget now has the highest annual deficit in its history ($500 billion) after finally balancing the books and achieving a surplus under the Clinton administration.
Finally, security is not only dealing with the threat of terror but it can also encompass economic, social and environmental security. A costly and inconclusive war can create serious problems at home. Where will health- care be for the uninsured in four years? What will the annual deficit be if the war in Iraq drags on? Who best can be trusted to deal with these issues? The Democrats and John Kerry must make this case for them to win.
The presidential campaign of 2004 seems to be a contest of seasons. Kerry clearly won the winter season by emerging as the nominee as early as March. The spring was difficult for Bush as events in Iraq began to polar- ize Americans. Yet the Republicans spent over $75 million dollars in nega- tive advertising trying to convince Americans that John Kerry was a ”œflip-flopper,” a man who tailored his views according to the mood of the day or his audience. By the end of the sum- mer season, this characterization began to have traction along with neg- ative commercials by a group of Vietnam veterans who questioned Kerry’s heroism and patriotism. Finally, the Republican convention seem to have bested that of the Democrats this summer by being more focused and concentrating on what they felt should be the prime issue of the election ”” a safer America.
The fall campaign is emerging as one of the nastiest, as insults are hurled between the candidates and their organ- izations over who did what in Vietnam and who didn’t go there 35 years ago. In 2000, 51 percent of Americans voted in the presidential contest and less than half chose a president. The current con- duct of the campaign which has avoid- ed serious discussion of issues does not augur well for greater participation of the electorate.
The presidential debates remain the last and best hope for a contest on the issues and not the war records of the candidates. Since 1960, debates between presidential candidates have been viewed with great anticipation. Kennedy in 1960, Carter in 1976, Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and Clinton in 1992 were able to gain momentum in their campaign through a solid debate performance. Considering the roller coaster character of polls and the near even division between the two major parties, we should expect the debates to play an even greater role in 2004.
Choosing an American president is a marathon, a very demanding process. All the basic democratic principles of American democracy are at play. For nearly two years, the Democratic party has engaged in finding the ticket to challenge an incumbent president. One should not underestimate the advantages of incumbency, especially in times of war. But this president is vulnerable.
Kerry or Bush? The consequences of the choice of America are important not just within its borders but way beyond. November 2 represents the first presi- dential election in a post 9/11 world. Both Kerry and Bush have different visions and approaches to economic, social and foreign policy issues. The ide- ological lines have never been clearer.
The next president and the new prime minister, Paul Martin, must build a relationship that is mutually beneficial while dealing with poten- tially divisive issues such as softwood lumber, beef exports, border security and fighting terrorism, defence spend- ing, anti-missile defence system, and the environment.
Historically, our bilateral relations have generally been positive but they have not always been constant. In the early years following Confederation, there was either indifference towards Canada or a desire for annexation on the part of American presidents. During the Second World War and subsequently, the two countries played an important and often complementary role in inter- national matters involving post-war reconstruction and diplomacy. The rela- tionship took on a new dimension ”” greater respect for Canada’s sovereignty, while it played the role of reliable ally.
Over the years, there has been a tendency for better relations between Democratic presidents and their Canadian counterparts, usually Liberal prime ministers. This can be explained in part by the fact that Democrats emphasize government- generated social programs similar to what we have become accustomed to. Democratic led governments are more activist and subscribe to a more liberal view of the world and a more inclu- sive approach to world affairs. The most significant and beneficial rela- tionship occurred between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mackenzie King. Historians point to FDR’s knowledge of Canada, which is not always the case with many US presidents, as a reason for their successful relation- ship. The Trudeau-Carter and Chrétien-Clinton years were seen to be where the bilateral relations were smoother. To be fair, however, Brian Mulroney had a highly successful bilateral relationship with Republican Presidents Reagan and Bush that led to the Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA and the acid rain accord.
A recent survey conducted by the Leger Marketing group in late August indicated a definite preference by Canadians for John Kerry as presi- dent (61 percent Kerry, 16 percent Bush, 23 percent no opinion). It is clear that the Bush approach to for- eign affairs and his well-known social conservative views do not fully res- onate with a majority of Canadians. Even though the Kerry-Edwards tick- et vows to re-examine trade agree- ments, including NAFTA, it does not seem to be an obstacle to the prefer- ences of Canadians.
Canadians do not vote in this election. Yet, we are the Americans’ largest trading partners in the world, and we share the North American con- tinent, whose security perimeter is now a constant pre-occupation, even an obsession, with the US. It would be no different, in that sense, under Kerry than under Bush. The choice made by our neighbours to the south will have enormous consequences for us all. The choice will condition many of our own policies in commercial, defence and diplomatic areas. At the very least, as Canadians, we have a duty to be informed about the issues and the policies as Americans choose their President on November 2. And in the event of a Bush victory, Canadians need to get over it and deal with it.