As this is written, with six weeks left in the US presidential elec- tion race, George Bush is ahead in the polls. The same wise commenta- tors who just a month ago were prais- ing the Democrats’ masterful convention are now beginning to refer to the Kerry candidacy in the past tense. Me, I’m not so sure. Even after three years of campaigning there’s still lots of time left for things to change. The debates may make a difference and there’s lots of room for October surpris- es, whether from Osama or other par- ties. My bet is this year’s vote will in the end live up to its advance billing as a cliff-hanger ”” though I wouldn’t take even that pusillanimous prediction too seriously: I thought Kim Campbell would be finishing her fourth term about now.
If Bush does win a second term, Canadians will have some serious self- examination to do. We need to remind ourselves that politeness and civil behaviour are supposed to be core Canadian values. If Bush doesn’t win, if he becomes a one-term president like his father, the self-examination will be less urgent but it should proceed never- theless. We would not have to come to terms with Bush, who would be on his way back to Crawford, but with Republicans, who are now the majority party in the US and don’t look like los- ing that status soon even if they lose the White House in November.
Public opinion polls in this coun- try suggest most Canadians will be dis- appointed if John Kerry loses. Kerry plays hockey, speaks French and sup- ports the welfare state. He also comes from a state, Massachusetts, with among the highest tax rates on the non-Canadian parts of the continent. In short, he’s our kind of guy.
Whether he’d be a good president for Canada is another question. Maybe his foreign policy would be less ”œadventurous.” On the other hand, Bush has proved his toughness while Kerry, like John Kennedy at the Bay of Pigs, may feel he has to make a point to the world in general and to America’s adversaries in particular. (Whether Bush’s foreign policy really has been misguided depends very much on how Iraq turns out and we don’t yet know that.)
As for more parochial concerns, Canadians have a strong interest in open markets. On that score, Bush is the better candidate, in terms of both ideological preference and political coalition-building. Kerry is beholden to the left and to the unions, who are pro- tectionist, and he has run on a platform of not exporting American jobs. Among all competitors for US job exports we rank very high. True, although Bush talks a good game on free trade in many instances he has not walked the walk. But his political base includes a corpo- rate sector that has an abiding interest in open markets.
In the highly decentralized US sys- tem the presidency is only one of many power centres. The president dominates the media but shares power with Congress, the bureaucracy and self-activating quasi-legal structures like those that so regularly lead to anti- dumping and countervailing duties on Canadian exports to the US market. In the end, who becomes president may not matter that much.
But it does matter some, which means the view that Canadian elites, both in politics and the media, have expressed toward George W. Bush in particular and conservative republi- canism in general is remarkably short-sighted. The standard view is that Bush is a buffoon, a poltroon, a cartoon-like figure of small mind and large ego who speaks ineptly and in an accent associated with backward- ness and who seeks his policy advice from God.
Never mind that many Americans share this view. That is their right. They are free to be politically partisan. But for so many important members of our population to be so openly con- temptuous of a man who may well influence US policy toward us for another four years is a remarkable breach of good sense. To take the same view of the Republican party, which is certain to influence US policy toward us for many years into the future, is equally stupid.
Even if our self-interest were not involved, we are supposed to be the better-behaved people. We should always feel free to disagree with Bush and his party on matters of policy or belief. But we should always be civil in our disagreement. Not only is that sensible, it’s the only comportment consistent with our idea of ourselves.
When Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, Herblock, the famous political cartoonist, declared that a new president deserved a clean shave and he stopped drawing Nixon with a thick five o’clock shadow. If Bush wins a second term, Canadians should recognize that he has twice won the endorsement of his fellow citizens and deserves our respect. And if he loses we should do the same re-think regarding the Republican party.
After all, it’s not as though we have any shortage of our own politi- cians to be contemptuous of.