Four more years?

by John Quiggin on February 25, 2004

The announcement that Ralph Nader will again run for the Presidency raises the (almost) unaskable question are there any circumstances under which we should hope for, promote, or even passively assist, the reelection of George W. Bush as against either of the remaining Democrat contenders? I feel nervous even raising this question, but I think it’s worth a hard and dispassionate look.

Regardless of their political persuasion, most people will agree, at least in retrospect, that it would have been better for their own side (defined either in ideological or in party terms) to have lost some of the elections they won. Most obviously, this was the case for the US Republican Party in 1928. Hoover’s victory, and his inability to cope with the Depression, paved the way for four successive victories for FDR and two generations of Democratic and liberal hegemony, which didn’t finally come to an end until the Reagan revolution in 1980. The same was true on the other side of poltiics in Australia and the UK, where Labour governments were elected just before the Depression, split over measures of retrenchment demanded by the maxims of orthodox finance and sat out the 1930s in Opposition, watching their own former leaders implement the disastrous policies they had rejected, but had been unable to counter.

So, is 2004 one of those occasions? The case that it is rests primarily on arguments about fiscal policy. Bush’s policies have set the United States on a path to national bankruptcy, a fact that is likely to become apparent some time between now and 2008. Assuming that actual or effective bankruptcy (repudiation of debt or deliberate resort to inflation) is unthinkable, this is going to entail some painful decisions for the next President and Congress, almost certainly involving both increases in taxation and cuts in expenditure. On the expenditure side, this will mean a lot more than the obvious targets of corporate welfare and FDW[1]. Either significant cuts in the big entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare) or deep cuts in everything else the government does will be needed, even with substantial increases in taxes (to see the nasty arithmetic read these CBO projections, and replace the baseline with the more realistic Policy Alternatives Not Included in CBO’s Baseline)

fn1. Fraud, Duplication and Waste

As far as I can see, the only way to avoid four years of grinding bargaining would be the Big Bang approach of repealing the Bush tax cuts en bloc while the electoral mandate was fresh. Gephardt and Dean proposed this (along with, I think, Kucinich, Braun and Sharpton), but Edwards and Kerry propose repealing only the cuts on incomes above $200 000 a year. Whichever of them wins the Democratic nomination, it seems likely that the pressures of the campaign will lead them to soft-pedal the bad news on tax and spending options, making it more difficult to push even partial repeal through a Congress that will probably have a Republican majority in at least one House.

Given that the deficit has yet to register as a major issue with many (most ?) voters, , it will be very hard to shift the blame back onto Bush and the Republicans if the problem is deferred until 2005 or 2006. It’s easy to imagine scenarios leading to an electoral catastrophe in 2008 and the election of a Republican even worse than Bush. Conversely, a re-elected Bush could be a second Herbert Hoover, discrediting the Republicans for decades to come.

Of course, similar arguments were made in 2000, notably on behalf of Nader, and they turned out to be totally wrong. More generally, the folk wisdom about birds in the hand and in the bush (sic) is applicable. And it’s always easier for an outside onlooker to advise taking the long-term view in cases of this kind, though in this case, we all have to live with the consequences.

Looking at the damage another four years of Bush would do in all areas of domestic and foreign policy, I can’t conclude that the putative long-term benefits of demonstrating the bankruptcy of his ideas are enough to balance the inevitable and immediate damage his re-election would cause. Still, I look forward to a Democratic victory with trepidation rather than the unalloyed enthusiasm I ought to feel.

{ 29 comments }

1

john c. halasz 02.25.04 at 10:27 am

Right! Cheerio!

2

jdsm 02.25.04 at 12:20 pm

One of the things that will be interesting about this election is the extent to which foreigners care deeply about the outcome. It’s gotten to the level that many people care more about who wins this election than who wins elections in their own countries and they believe that it will have a bigger effect on their life. That has to be a new phenomenon.

On that note, is there any reason for a foreigner to want Bush to win the next election? Given that they don’t care so much about the US economy (though of course we should), it comes down to foreign policy – that one’s a no brainer I’m afraid.

3

des 02.25.04 at 12:51 pm

jdsm:

One of the things that will be interesting about this election is the extent to which foreigners care deeply about the outcome. It’s gotten to the level that many people care more about who wins this election than who wins elections in their own countries and they believe that it will have a bigger effect on their life. That has to be a new phenomenon.

That was certainly true for me (in the UK) last time round. I stayed up all night listening to the results on the radio, for instance.

On that note, is there any reason for a foreigner to want Bush to win the next election? Given that they don’t care so much about the US economy […]

I think there’s a real possibility of some top quality Schadenfreude, at least for those who have resented the US’s imperialist tendencies, in watching Bush devastate the US’s economy and squander its geopolitical influence.

4

Barry 02.25.04 at 1:05 pm

jdsm, the US economy is still the beast that drives the world. If the US goes into economic catastrophe, it’ll be very, very hard for the rest of the world to not suffer.

5

Tom T. 02.25.04 at 1:17 pm

The deficit has only been a serious issue in American politics once, in 1992, because Perot emerged as an (initially) likable and credible candidate who attacked the deficit on almost a single-issue basis. Otherwise, it’s hard to get too many people to care that much about it. Deficits have come and gone for fifty years, and previous generations that ran deficits didn’t bankrupt the current generation. No one’s ever established a real-world connection between the deficit and interest rates sufficient for ordinary people to feel any personal effect from the deficit.

It’s your prerogative to oppose Bush, but I think it may be a mistake to sit back and wait for the deficit to bite him. There’s a strong chance that it never will.

6

Rich Puchalsky 02.25.04 at 1:24 pm

Utilitarian calculus is far too uncertain in this case to outweigh the thousands of deaths that we *know* are going to be a consequence of Four More Wars.

7

Ilkka Kokkarinen 02.25.04 at 1:27 pm

“On that note, is there any reason for a foreigner to want Bush to win the next election?”

For starters, the comedy value.

If the anti-American leftists and other dimwits outside America stopped to think about this for a moment, they would realize that another four years of Bush would pretty much do the work for them, since the “conservative” policies are heading USA towards a fiscal disaster.

During the Clinton era of the 90’s, USA’s lead against the rest of the world grew quickly, despite the conservative’s warnings in 92-94 and the huge government surpluses. The last thing the anti-Americans would want to see is more of that! (Even so, Clinton was quite universally liked e.g. in Europe, which tells a lot about the relationship between the two continents.)

On the other hand, it would be interesting to see how the American conservatives could live with a Democratic administration, considering their very own rule “All criticism of the president is treason.” I bet this rule would be forgotten pretty quickly. It would also be rather interesting to see what would happen if the Democrat president chose to go to war against some nation.

8

Matthew 02.25.04 at 1:49 pm

This is similar to a revolutionary-marxist perspective pushed to its “logical” conclusion: that we should support Bush because his extremist policies are the one more likely to bring about the revolution.
Just like the Spiked/LM crowd has turned to cheerleading GM crops and Tatcherism.
It seems quite insane to me but, hey, I guess I’ll be against the wall when the revolution comes…

9

Jonathan Goldberg 02.25.04 at 2:17 pm

This whole line of thought is too clever by a factor of ten.

10

theCoach 02.25.04 at 2:32 pm

JQ,
If you were convinced the End of Time were imminent, Bush seems the man to lead us to the apocolypse and a time of reckoning. Personally, that will not drive my vote.

11

jlw 02.25.04 at 2:42 pm

For the anti-American left, Bush is a dream come true. Instead of citing pages from an obscure Chomsky tract to support your contention that the U.S. Government is a force of evil loosed on the world, you need only hold up the day’s headlines. Bush makes the anti-American argument better than any crusty intellectual ever did.

Me, I’m an American. I’ll be voting for the Democrats and hoping for a miracle.

12

Matt McIrvin 02.25.04 at 2:58 pm

I’ve heard some people outside the US express (not quite in so many words) the feeling that they want to see America really go down the crapper to punish all the stupid Americans for being stupid.

Do keep in mind that, regardless of what feelings we may have gone through in the interim (largely as a result of trauma), most of us did not vote for George W. Bush in 2000.

I guess it’s just that I’m a liberal rather than a lefty (Phil Ochs would have hated me), but I tend to think that, in general, intentionally losing in order to hasten radical change is not a good idea. Any political reasoning that relies on a nontrivial chain of events outside your control going your way without your assistance is probably unwise.

13

baa 02.25.04 at 3:51 pm

It’s remarkable that this discussion “when would you wish your party lost an election” has been phrased entirely in the context of partisan political fall-out. Thus, Republicans would want Hoover to lose so someone else takes the blame for the great depression. Now people want Bush in place to deal with the plague of killer robots he’s unleashed. Super.

A more interesting question: might someone in retrospect have been glad their party lost *for the good of the country.* For example, if a non-Hoover could have prevented the great depression, that would have suffice, I suspect, for most Republicans of the 40s and 50s.

So let me pose this to the (what I imagine is largely democratic and left) comment board. Are there any presidential elections you’re glad the democrats lost? I’m of the center-right, but I’m personally delighted FDR won every time, cause he got the big question (smash fascism) right. It would take a lot of court-packing to overshadow that achievement. Any of you glad that Reagan was in place to oppose communism, or that Bush I was around instead of Dukakis when Saddam took Kuwait? Or has it just never been the case, in your opinion, that hindsight shows the GOP president to have been the right man for the job?

14

Nasi Lemak 02.25.04 at 3:51 pm

You can also look back at 1928 and say it would have been a good time to get out of equities. Or at 1980 and say, shoulda bought Microsoft. But to know that you could do this if you stood outside time is quite different from deriving anything useful about what you ought to do now. (You don’t generally want to get out of equities on the off-chance they crash next year. You don’t generally want to buy weird start-up companies on the off-chance they become enormous. You don’t generally want to lose elections on the off-chance the one after is a big win. The first two, at least, are probably capable of empirical demonstration.)

As a non-American, I’d love to see a special kind of suffering visited upon all the Bush voters. (And maybe the non-repentant Nader voters.) But I don’t doubt that the American economy going down the crapper would do much more harm to everyone *else* than it would do to Republican voters who are probably not all that exposed to risk.

15

bryan 02.25.04 at 4:15 pm

‘On that note, is there any reason for a foreigner to want Bush to win the next election? ‘

actually I have several, most european politicians seem to believe that Bush is a blip, an anomaly, I don’t. I think the republicans will throw up other bush types, and at least some of them will be elected. Currently Europe doesn’t want to make the hard choices it has to make to get out from underneath the U.S thumb, everyone’s hoping for Kerry to save them from having to make decisions, allowing them to live on in the illusion of a nice and pretty U.S until the next fool. So I’m hoping for Bush to force them to make decisions.
Why don’t I want to wait until the next fool? It just seems to me that some things, imbalances in armed might etc. will grow worse as time goes on.

The problem for me is not that Bush is screwing up the democratic process in the U.S, it’s that he’s seriously fucking with democracy in Europe. From the one sided treaties Great Britain is engaging in to the various little lands, like Denmark, striving to stay on his good side, American might has been very damaging. I’m pretty sure that Denmark is along in the coalition of the willing because of the current government’s need to kiss ass, and still we hear shit about how we’re not doing enough, when the majority of citizens were against it.

Also, if Bush screws up the American Economy he lessens its ability to exert political influence. Sure, it will screw up the world economy, but I think that would be short term, economical engines have failed before, and the world has adjusted. The last adjustment shifted might to the U.S, it would be nice to get it shifted away.

The thing that makes all this seem especially urgent to me is the consideration that the current situation we’re in, is less than two decades from the collapse of communism, and the U.S rise as the only ‘superpower’, when considered in that light one might stop thinking of Bush as an anomaly and rather think of him as an example of power having corrupted somewhat too quickly, and by doing so having given a timely warning.

Note: I lived in the U.S for 22 years, leaving late in 98. Up until about a year ago I thought of myself as an american really, especially as everyone always tells me I am. Thanks to Bush I don’t think of myself as American anymore.

16

bryan 02.25.04 at 4:19 pm

‘ Or has it just never been the case, in your opinion, that hindsight shows the GOP president to have been the right man for the job?

hmm, probably Lincoln

17

Michael Froomkin 02.25.04 at 4:24 pm

The next President will appoint several members of the Supreme Court. That Court will decide just how broad and arbitrary the President’s powers are to detain foreigners at home and abroad; it may even reach the question of invasions and war powers.

Beware of getting what you ask for.

18

Adam Rice 02.25.04 at 4:33 pm

This gets convoluted, but bear with me. Among some progressives in the USA, there is speculation that some factions of the GOP (think Grover Norquist) want to keep Bush in place with the knowledge (indeed, the intent) that the country will suffer a financial meltdown during the second administration of the second Bush. Why? Because that would force the government to adopt really radical changes, like the abolition of social security.

I know, it sounds crazy. But this gang has proven they’re of the “destroy the village in order to save it” mentality. I thought the assertion that Iraq War 2 was really about the Euro was crazy until I read the same by a former intelligence officer.

19

Mark Byron 02.25.04 at 5:26 pm

There are quite a few foreigners who would root for Bush, just not too many in the crowd that flocks here. Check out places like Poland and other former-Soviet subjects.

As for the deficit, a combination of economic growth (which we’re getting, albeit without as much job growth as most recovery will have) corporate welfare cutting, some cutting of other programs and some modest tax increases (or an tax overhaul that will increase revenues) should do the job. The way things are going, revenue growth from a growing economy should cut the deficit significantly, making the ghastly cuts y’all are talking about not quite as bad.

20

jdsm 02.25.04 at 5:54 pm

“There are quite a few foreigners who would root for Bush, just not too many in the crowd that flocks here. Check out places like Poland and other former-Soviet subjects.”

You may be right but I’ve never seen any evidence of this and we get a fair few Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians in Helsinki. There’s a great deal of difference between feeling gratitude towards the US and supporting its current administration. The support for the war was a political decision based on gratitude, nothing more.

21

COK 02.25.04 at 6:05 pm

On Iraq 2 being about the Euro, I don’t know. However, there is certainly room for speculation over the precarious state of the Dollar – in June 2001 Ronald McKinnon published an article in the IMF’s Finance and Development journal (hardly a bastion of the left) on this subject. It’s here: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2001/06/mckinnon.htm. The analysis makes for interesting reading, although McKinnon’s recommendations are hardly earth-shattering.

On the Euro issue, it’s hard to imagine the single currency being recognised as a strong counter-weight to the Dollar, at least for the moment. Anyway, while they may want to see a certain re-balancing, and perhaps even a poke in the American eye, European governments would be crazy to wish for the US economy to be really weakened. That’s not to say that an American administration with any regard to long-term strategy might not seek to cut off this possible route for Europe before any Euro geopolitical strategy has even taken shape.

It may be that America is being sailed into an iceberg, but we would all be sucked down. No matter who the captain is.

22

Jon Meltzer 02.25.04 at 6:06 pm

>Are there any presidential elections you’re glad the democrats lost?

1904 – Theodore Roosevelt vs Alton Parker.

23

Sigivald 02.25.04 at 8:47 pm

If spending more than it takes in and inflating services spending (of a sort that will continue only to increase over time, that is) is what puts the nation “on the path to national bankruptcy”, didn’t the US more or less take that fork half a century or more ago? Shall we start with WW2, or the New Deal? Earlier?

Why is it that Bush “set the US on” that path, when it appears that all he’s doing is keeping on the same well-trodden rut of spend, spend, spend s’more?

I suppose it’s not the fact that there’s an “(R)” after his name and he’s likely to get re-elected, no?

(Let’s not forget the analysis of the Democratic candidates’ platforms, all of which want to spend more than Bush does, and make more nearly-unkillable social spending programs. But a Bush re-election would somehow do such huge long-term fiscal damage that it Must Be Avoided? Laffer curve, anyone? D’ya really think that raising spending “some” and taxes greatly will both remove the deficit and not tank the economy? Want to put some money on that?

Seriosuly, guys. Parties aside, it’s painfully obvious that the Federal government will simply spend every cent it can, and then spend more, regardless. Trying to pin this on Bush or Republicans specifically is laughable; you might rile the remaining “small government Republicans” (who are the only significant population in the big two parties who actually want lower spending), but they’re never going to vote Democrat.)

24

Leo Casey 02.25.04 at 8:52 pm

What an elegant elaboration of the “worse for the people] the better [for us]” theory of politics. I note that you managed to leave out how well it worked for the German Communists, circa the early 1930s.

25

Sigivald 02.25.04 at 8:57 pm

One more. Bryan said Bush is “seriously fucking with democracy in Europe”.

Which “one-sided treaties” Britain is involved with, and how one-sided treaties by Britain are either non-democratic (treaties? democratic? what?) or Bush’s fault, I can’t say, lacking Bryan’s knowledge of his referents.

However, that various countries align as they see fit doesn’t appear to be “fucking with democracy”, by any reasonable use of the term, unless Bush threatened boycotts or invasions of Euro countries that didn’t “toe the line” (he did not, that I can recall, nor has the US, to my knowledge, taken any action at all to chasten France, Germany, or any other non-cooperating European power… unless “not giving them shiny lucrative contracts in Iraq” is “fucking with democracy”, but I don’t think that’s defensible), I don’t see where “democracy” even enters into it.

Please tell me exactly how European countries’ democracy is being “fucked with” by Bush? If the “majority” of Danish citizens were against Danish policies, I think the problem is not Bush, but the Danish government not listening to its people … of course, most European countries aren’t known for having strong Democratic impulses, at least by my horribly old-Liberal American use of the term.

(Power corrupted Bush? Uh. Yeah. What excuses do Chirac and Schroeder and Chretien have for their disgusting behaviour – that Germans and Canadians are, by the way, increasingly actually disgusted by. (I don’t follow France that closely; perhaps the French are, too.) … My point here is mainly that it’s very easy to say “Power corrupts!”, but it’s much harder to show someone the corruption, when we remember that corruption is not the same as disagreement over policy.)

26

Mark Johnson 02.26.04 at 5:43 am

Given that the poltroons in the White House are committed to destroying this country those who are anti-American should cheer any (remote) possibility of their re-election.

In a different, but similar vein I would love to see the fascist-theocrats destroyed.

However, I have to live here (Unless someone can aid me in emigrating to Australia, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, Norway, Germany, France, or some other civilized country). And that means getting the vile scum out of office.

27

Doug Muir 02.26.04 at 9:51 am

Are there any presidential elections you’re glad the democrats lost?

Any involving William Jennings Bryan (1896, 1900, 1904, 1908).

Adlai Stevenson would have been a pretty crap President. Charming but weak, fickle and petulant; no “bottom”, as (some)Brits say. Basically a dumber and (even) less honest FDR.

I’m skeptical of Walter Mondale’s ability to handle the sudden and surprising decline of the USSR 1985-9.

Dukakis, OTOH, gets a bad rap. I think he’d have handled both Kuwait and the collapse of Communism just fine. His problem was that he was a pedant. (Not an intellectual — a pedant. Different thing.)

The American electorate doesn’t much care for those… the few that have managed to get in have done it by disguising their pedantry behind a smokescreen of something, usually bonhomie. (See: Pat Moynihan)

Doug M.

28

bryan 02.26.04 at 2:44 pm

my referent for the britain signing one sided treaties can be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,999605,00.html

my referents for danish matters are probably unline, but they would most probably be in danish, at any rate I did not read them online but in local newspapers so I’ll have to go with a reiteration that the current government seemed to consider staying on the U.S good side more important that the majority opinion on the war. I was a pro-war liberal, incorrectly as it turns out, but I didn’t especially like governmental bowing and scraping to american interests.

I think it’s been a reasonably clear habit of the Bush administration to make threats to get agreement, most of those threats were pre-war against two nations strong enough to withstand the U.S, Germany and France, whether this withstanding was for their own geopolitical benefits I think we can remember a lot of crap pitched their way. Denmark didn’t get a lot of crap from the administration, but of course my thesis is that is because we went along with them, and I clearly remember the political debates leading up to war sometimes involving Denmark’s need, as a little country, to remain on the U.S’s good side.

29

bryan 02.26.04 at 2:52 pm

‘Power corrupted Bush? Uh. Yeah’

sorry about that, but I suppose I was unclear earlier, I don’t think power corrupted Bush as I consider him corrupt from the beginning, I think that Bush is an example of power having corrupted the U.S (this can be seen from the context of my earlier statement)

He is the little man thrown up by the tide of history to wield America’s overwhelming power (thank god he’s not too competent at it), so when I look at the situation I see, hmm, about fifteen years ago America found itself at the position of being the world’s only superpower, now it’s got a doctrine of pre-emptive war and is brow-beating ‘allies’, read serf states, using its power.

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