What if ... Kerry won the White House?

October 22, 2004

Academics recently debated the likely course of a Democrat presidency. Huw Richards listened in.

To be President of the US is, Bill Bradley reflected as he contemplated his run for the Democrat nomination in 2000, to be "a guaranteed historical figure". You will become a number in the succession starting with George Washington, your own presidential library and, although you will not live to see it, your face on a postage stamp.

Two weeks from now, barring a rerun of extraordinary 2000 hiatus, Democrat nominee John Kerry will know whether he is to become number 44 or join the rather less happy succession of men such as Charles Evans Hughes, Thomas Dewey and Al Gore who looked as though they might become president but failed. Close, but no library.

Inevitably at this time, attention focuses on a single question: who will win? But a presidential election is analogous to childbirth - an event so momentous that it is possible to lose sight of the fact that it is the prelude to a longer process to follow. What difference might President Kerry make?

The issue of who will win was not neglected at Swansea University's colloquium on "The US Presidential Election 2004: The Campaign and Its Consequences", held this month. Organiser Jon Roper, chairing the final session, asked each of the five speakers to say who they thought would win.

Three said Bush, two Kerry - although Fred Greenstein of Princeton University, widely described as the "doyen of contemporary presidential scholars", flipped a coin before opting for the Democrat.

Rather more time and attention, though, was devoted to consequences, which are always hard to estimate - every political academic knows David Butler's comment that "experts are no likelier to make accurate predictions, but make inaccurate ones for more sophisticated reasons".

John Dumbrell of Leicester University pointed to the difficulty of predicting the likely course of a second term for George Bush, noting that the last right-wing Republican to hold the office for more than one term, Ronald Reagan, had followed the "Evil Empire" rhetoric of his first term by rapprochement with Mikhail Gorbachev in his second. Where a first-term president is preoccupied with securing re-election, second terms tend to be concerned with historical legacy. Dumbrell did suggest, though, that, given the record deficits run up in Bush's first term, "it is hard to imagine that Bush will invade anywhere during his second".

If every prediction for a president with so well-established a style as Bush has to be given a qualifying asterisk even after three and a half years of evidence, how much harder is it to assess how John Kerry might operate as president? Greenstein, whose recently reissued book The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to George W. Bush examines leadership under six headings - communication, organisational capacity, political skill, policy vision, cognitive style and emotional intelligence - pointed out that Kerry would be the first senator to be elected to the job since John Kennedy, also from Massachusetts, in 1960.

He would also inherit an unusually polarised nation and political elite, according to Greenstein. "The US is more polarised now than at any time since the 1850s, a decade whose differences culminated in the Civil War.

Polls on Bush's performance show that Republicans very strongly approve of him, while Democrats strongly disapprove - we have a U-curve rather than the more familiar bell curve. There are clear-cut divisions between the parties in Congress in the fashion more traditionally associated with British parties - votes find all of the Democrats opposed to all of the Republicans' measures with only a few exceptions, while relations between people on opposite sides are close to an all-time low."

As Dumbrell pointed out, Kerry would almost certainly have to deal with a Republican Congress. Kerry's ability to handle the organisational element of the job is inevitably an unknown. Dumbrell said: "A senator has a staff of about 60 people who are loosely organised. The president has to manage 1,000 or so major figures in the executive branch, plus the Cabinet, and has to have them telling a common story."

Kerry is not, said Greenstein, "a mission politician in the fashion of Ronald Reagan. Allegations of flip-flopping come from a pragmatic style, taking issues de novo and seeking out every possible point of view."

One of his nicknames with his staff, Dumbrell noted, is Hamlet. Greenstein explained: "He loves getting people together and hearing multiple points of view. While he has a liberal voting record, his staff do not know which way he will vote on a particular issue - and he has taken more conservative positions on issues such as a balanced budget and tenure for teachers. It means he is deliberative... but has the danger of looking too ad hoc."

Comfortable with competing points of view, Kerry would be likely to reinstitute frequent presidential press conferences, a practice discontinued by Bush, who has held only two. Greenstein suggested that this lack of exposure had been a serious disadvantage for Bush, for example, in his first TV debate with Kerry.

Dumbrell noted that this year's election has, like the Vietnam-dominated Nixon-Humphrey contest of 1968, been fought on international rather than domestic issues - with 41 per cent in one poll rating foreign affairs the main issue against 26 per cent for the economy. Aware of the risks of looking unpatriotic, Kerry has cast himself as "a foreign policy conservative, painting Bush as a revolutionary who has damaged alliances and indulged in pre-emption".

Jim Pfiffner of George Mason University, Virginia, pointed out that Bush's unilateralism predates 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. "Even before 9/11, when he was talking of a quiet, modest foreign policy, he had rejected ten international treaties."

Leftwingers such as historian Gabriel Kolko argue that Kerry stands for the renewal of an alliance-based American hegemony that Bush's unilateralism is destroying. Kerry has generally supported the normalisation of relations with Cuba and Vietnam, backed "humanitarian intervention" in the Nineties - and like Bill Clinton regrets not supporting it for Rwanda - and in the Middle East has supported the "road map" process while being much more critical of Saudi Arabia than Bush has ever dared. Although critical of the Iraq War, he believes the US is now committed to a presence there.

Dumbrell also suggested that those close to Kerry have provided some hints of his intentions. Kerry's former security adviser Sandy Berger, in the journal Foreign Affairs, argued that the US should accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. "Nothing undermines the US more than the perception that it does not consider itself bound by the norms it applies to others."

And while much has been made of Bush's relationship to his father (Bush 43 and Bush 41 in the argot of the presidential scholar), Kerry's father, Richard, a career foreign service officer, also went on record with his views on international policy in his book Star-Spangled Mirror , published in 1990.

Dumbrell said: "He attacked the ethno-centric strain in foreign policy, the view that everywhere should be like the US. His book is a plea for a realist foreign policy, with no crusades, a respect for agreements and traditional ideas of sovereignty, and cooperation between democratic states." Kerry, he suggests, is likely to pursue a foreign policy in line with his father's precepts. Given that Bush, while frequently accused of pursuing a dynastic project, has seen his foreign policy come under public fire from senior members of his father's Administration such as James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, one of the ironies of this election could be that the candidate who is truly his father's son is John Kerry.

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