In politics, a wise man once told me, there are only two important questions: (1) Who should win? (2) Who will win? You don’t have to be very wise to understand that the answers are not necessarily (or indeed very often) the same.
As to the first question, my own wisdom, such as it is, offers little help. George W. Bush has led the country into an unnecessary and potentially disastrous war and shows no sign of recognizing that we are having serious problems resolving, let alone winning, it. There is no reason whatsoever to think he deserves to be re-elected or that keeping him as president will not lead to further war and further disaster.
His main rival for the White House is no improvement, unable to offer a clear and convincing answer as to what he would have done differently or what he will do better. Given his record and statements, it’s entirely possible that John Kerry would engage us in his own ill-conceived war in the same region, either deliberately or through incompetence.
My advice, suggested earlier, is to forget both candidates. If you think it’s your duty to vote, pick a “third party” ideological candidate—any one of them—and go for him. Otherwise, stay home and read a book. That’s a perfectly honorable and sensible choice, and it sends a message, if anyone wants to receive it.
As to who will win, that’s not very clear either, and that very fact may tell us something about the answer to the first question. The reason it’s not clear who will win is that an awful lot of Americans are having problems answering who should win, and what that means is that whoever does win will have little “mandate” from anyone.
Recently John Zogby, one of the nation’s leading pollsters, spoke to a group in Hong Kong about the election and who might win it, and what he said tells us much the same. Mr. Zogby leans to the Democrats, and that bias should be considered in evaluating what he said, but what he said is mainly of interest because of what he didn’t say.
Mr. Bush’s support in the polls, Mr. Zogby is reported to have said, has never risen above 48 percent, and approval of his performance as president, belief that he deserves to be re-elected, and belief that the country is going in the right direction all are negative.
These indicators are significant because of the “undecided vote,”which in recent weeks amounts to about 6 percent of the electorate. Mr. Zogby says that undecided voters tend to wind up voting for the challenger—as they did in 1980 for Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter. Also, a higher turnout is expected this year than previously, and that too is expected to favor the Democrats. Then there’s the youth vote, which is also heavily Democratic, and a high turnout of young voters, driven by anti-war sentiment and concern over jobs, would also help Mr. Kerry. On the whole, then, Mr. Zogby believes that the election is Mr. Kerry’s to lose.
It is not my point that Mr. Zogby’s analysis and prediction (if that’s what it is) are right or wrong. My point is that the reasons he offers are simply pollster’s reasons. They are essentially policy-wonk reasons or technical, number-crunching, inside-baseball reasons. There is virtually nothing in what he tells us that suggests a strong pattern or consensus as to who should win. And that is not a criticism of him. It’s simply what the trends in this election do tell us—not just Mr. Zogby but virtually everybody.
George W. Bush has been president now for four years, and he went into this race as the incumbent and as a war president, with no scandal and no economic disaster at hand. He should be winning by a landslide, but the blunt truth is that he is barely if at all edging his opponent and may still lose. And no one, with the exception of die-hard Republican partisans, seems to care very much whether he stays president or not.
If there is a pattern in this election, that’s it, and what it tells us is that Mr. Bush has totally failed to convince the country that his policies are the right policies or that he is the right leader to carry them out. He may in fact win the election, just as he won the last one, but if he is unable to win it any more convincingly than he seems to be doing, he will have lost it morally, and he will have no legitimate claim that the country is behind him or that what he wants to do abroad has enough popular support to sustain it through another term.