No more years ?

by John Quiggin on September 2, 2004

A while ago, I discussed the idea that the forthcoming US election would be a good one for the Democrats to lose, eventually reaching the conclusion that the damage that would be caused by four more years of Bush would offset any political benefits from finally discrediting the Republicans.

Now Niall Ferguson looks at the same question from the other side. Like me[1], he thinks this would be a good election for either party to lose. But, since he’s taking the Republican side of the debate, the damage that a second Bush term would cause is an argument in favor of his case. He concludes

moderate Republicans today may justly wonder if a second Bush term is really in their best interests. Might four years of Kerry not be preferable to eight or more years of really effective Democratic leadership?

fn1. Though not for exactly the same reasons. He puts more weight on criticisms of Kerry than I think can be justified, and less on the extent to which painful economic adjustments are already inevitable.



Giles 09.02.04 at 10:24 pm

the problem with the John Major analogy is that its all the wrong way round.

Post 1992 Major had a rebounding economy with few major fiscal or monetary problems.

Post 2004 Bush has to/should make descisions on fiscal policy.

Post 1992 Major had, by British standards a very small majority in the legislature.

Post 2004 Bush is still likely to have a large, by US standards majority in the Legilature (in that he controls both houses).

Major and the conservatives were in part discerdited in that although facing no major economic problems, they were unable to do anything because of parliament.

Its hard to see how the Bush adminstration is likely to suffer from a similar lack of power – rather the danger for the Republicans is that with both the excecutive and the legislature in the bag, they may become so relaxed that the the libertarian and religius wing may publicly fall out.


fnook 09.02.04 at 10:30 pm


I’m not sure Bush’s lock on the Senate is a done deal, but you’re undoubtedly right.

Of course, with the heat of the election now on us this is all idle speculation. Just to play along, I agree that the extent of our forthcoming economic adjustments is the key, so Ferguson’s analysis seems less useful to me than yours.

Plus, I love the condescension oozing off of Ferguson’s post though. Oooh the awful specter of really effective Democratic leadership. Shudder the thought.


Leo Casey 09.02.04 at 11:03 pm

If the first four years of a Bush adminstration has not been sufficiently convincing of the disastrous nature of his policies, why, pray tell, would another four years do any better?


Bob 09.02.04 at 11:49 pm

At least the Republican convention yields insights into how come Bush and Tony Blair get on so well.


Tobias 09.02.04 at 11:49 pm

The last commenter has a point. Will there be a point where most of the Americans who (still) support Bush despite his damaging policies ever come round realising they’re behaving auto-destructively? Case study: Amber, 20 yo undergraduate at University of Texas at somewhere i can#t remember student from a staunchly Republican home, who I met on a train to Prague: While hating the concrete adverse effects the Republican policies have had on her (and her familiy’s) life(and style), she said would register to vote for him. Reasons? None. Just crude labels without any real content…


kevin donoghue 09.02.04 at 11:55 pm

I am undecided how to exercise my vote – which doesn’t much matter since I don’t have one. On balance I think I favour giving Dubya the chance to discredit himself quite comprehensively. Also, I like France and it would be embarassing for the French to have to deal with a polite request for assistance in Iraq from President Kerry, given that there is precious little France can do for him in any case. Bush won’t ask and, even if he did, it would surely be a pleasure to tell him what to do with himself.


Clancy 09.03.04 at 12:11 am

Andrew Ó Baoill has a recent post that seems germane to this conversation. I don’t have anything else to add; right now I’m more interested in reading long-view and international perspectives such as these.


thrasymachus 09.03.04 at 2:19 am

Over some waffles at a local diner with my very moderate brother, he informs me he’s voting for Bush. After a brief conversation about the state of the economy, my brother agrees that Bush’s policies are not good for the economy. Then we have a brief discussion about the state of the war on terrorism and Bush’s foreign policy in general, which concludes with him admitting that the administration’s policies have been a disaster. I await a moment of conversion, only to be disappointed. He informs me that he still likes Bush because “he has a plan and is committed to his position.” Heaven help us.


NancyP 09.03.04 at 4:58 am

Lifetime Supreme Court and appellate court appointments will be made by the next president. Many people (immigrants, African-Americans, religious minorities, women, sexual minorities (gays/lesbians/bisexuals/transfolk)) fear that civil liberties will be eroded. Heterosexual white men who aren’t millionaires may not be targets of judgements restricting civil liberties, but may be concerned by judgements that overwhelmingly favor interests of large corporations over those of individuals.

Therefore I do not want to see Bush reelected, particularly as the House and Senate seem likely to stay Republican.


self 09.03.04 at 6:04 am

Perhaps a thoughtful entry on “How to approach the cognitive dissonance of family and friends intent on voting for Bush” would be useful. I am at a loss for what to say to these people. Any ideas timber people ?
As Sun Ra once said, “What planet is this ? Is this a planet of life or death ?”.


nick 09.03.04 at 7:06 am

It was Robert Harris, I believe (though it could have been Simon Jenkins) who said in 1992 that the party which won the UK general election would wish that it hadn’t — the riff that Fergie is picking up in his WSJ piece. That notion now seems even more correct that might have been imagined even in 1997, when it became obvious that the Tories would probably stay out of government for three full terms, given the swing; that’s because Blair has essentially Thatcherised his party with the rank and file helpless to prevent it.

There are big differences between UK and US politics with regard to Pyrrhic victories — as others have said, Supreme Court nominations shape policy for much longer than the lifetime of an administration or a Congress.

And right now, I do think that the stakes are too high in terms of global politics to allow the Republicans a chance to implode after another victory.

Post 1992 Major had a rebounding economy with few major fiscal or monetary problems.

Er, that’s a very macro perspective. For the people thrown into negative equity, to give one example, it didn’t seem so clear.

Still, it’ll be amusing if, by the law of unintended consequences, Norman Lamont turns out to have helped Kerry win.


Steve 09.03.04 at 2:01 pm

Perhaps a thoughtful entry on “How to approach the cognitive dissonance of family and friends intent on voting for Bush” would be useful.

I’ve been wrestling with the “What could they possibly be thinking?” question myself, and so far the best answer I’ve been able to come up with is, ironically enough, that ridiculous little axiom that many of us have been chuckling at for the past three years:

“9/11 changed everything.”

An awful lot of otherwise reasonable people appear to have decided that there is only one possible response to the attempted emasculation of our nation: To show the world that WE ARE NOT PUSSIES.

If anybody’s got a better hypothesis, I’m all ears.

On the subject of a Pyrrhic victory, I do worry that a Kerry win could be the worst possible outcome. Between the possibility of him getting thoroughly bogged down in Bush’s quagmire, and the fact that the hard right will remobilize to destroy his presidency by any means necessary, as they did with Clinton, I can’t help wondering if we wouldn’t be better off leaving Bush to face the consequences of his actions.

Then 4 words pop into my head–“Chief Justice Clarence Thomas”–and everything in that last paragraph suddenly seems utterly beside the point.


Matt McIrvin 09.03.04 at 2:59 pm

Aaaarrrrgh. Everyone who tries to be clever and sophisticated about today’s politics seems to come around to speculating about how it might be better for their favored guys to lose, and I get less and less tolerant of it every time.

There have been times when a party paid dearly for winning an election, and lost long-term power as a result. The problem is that you can’t predict what those times will be, and you certainly can’t make them happen. Playing several moves ahead like this assumes that events are much more predictable and controllable than they really are.

Taken to an extreme, this reasoning leads to 2000 Naderism: the idea that you ought to actively help the better party lose so that the worse one’s extremes will wake up the country and somehow push the better one in your ideological direction. Of course, the Naderites didn’t count on an epochal national trauma giving Bush an enormous rally-round-the-flag spike out of the blue less than a year into his presidency. Even if Kerry and other Democrats win huge this fall, can we honestly say that it was all worth the cost?


Zizka 09.03.04 at 5:03 pm

I think that simple-minded Democratic partisans are in this case, as often, wiser than the sophisticated strategic thinkers. In fact, I think that sophisticated strategic thinking is one of the curses of the Democratic Party. When Enron was breaking I was told again and again that the wise Democratic strategists were waiting for the right moment to exploit the issue, but that moment never came. (The truth was that Lieberman and others were so implicated with Enron themselves that the issue was unexploitable for them. I often find it easy to understand why Nader went crazy).

The statistical distribution for political leaders is not a Bell curve. It’s thick at the bottom and middle and thin at the top, like graphs of any other difficult accomplishment. There are many more 1’s and 2’s than there are 9’s and 10’s, and mediocrity is a considerable achievement.

There’s also a disproportion between the good a good man can do (make significant finite improvements) and the bad a bad man can do (plunge the world into interminable war, destroy the world economy, exterminate a people, bring a civilization to an end). This is because there are lots of ways to do things wrong, and only a few ways to do things right, so a random or uninformed choice will normally be wrong. It’s not a 50-50 split.

So the choice between a mediocre candidate and a bad one is really pretty large. Probably Kerry’s a 5 or a 6, and Bush is a 3 at best, and (judging by Zell) more likely to move down than up. That’s an enormous difference, and not one to play games with.

This is directed more at Quiggin’s original post than at this one, but I really believe that today the shrill and alarmist are much wiser than the urbane and crafty.

Academic life has a taboo against substantive, decisive, concrete, practical thinking in favor of toying with interesting and ingenious conceptual abstractions. This is one of the reasons that a lot of Americans hate Democrats and liberals, and just to accuse them of anti-intellectualism is a form of self-serving denial.


dipnut 09.03.04 at 10:26 pm

Excellent points, Zizka, but oh, the irony!

You say, plain determination to prevail is better than feckless intellectual exhibitionism. You extol the wisdom of simplicity. Wonderful!

But you would elect that party which “has a taboo against substantive, decisive, concrete, practical thinking in favor of toying with interesting and ingenious conceptual abstractions”. You say we must be practical and steadfast in the campaign, so that governance may be insubstantive, indecisive, abstracted, and impractical.

Do the same principles which win a campaign not apply to steering the perilous course of a nation at war?

One other thing: let’s just grant, for the sake of argument, that America needs its leadership to be more, uh, intellectual.

So where, exactly, is the Democrat party’s intellect? John Kerry, in case you haven’t noticed, is a spectacularly dull and uninteresting person. His campaign shambles along like a zombie, indicating that he doesn’t like to work with people smarter than himself. Where is the restless creativity, the boundless mental energy, the brilliant originality which is supposed to make the world a better place?


Zizka 09.03.04 at 10:53 pm

Dipnut, your zingers aren’t zinging. Recalibrate your equipment.

Obviously, I’m asking for changes in the Democratic Party. I have been doing so continually for decades. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think that the present mediocre party is far preferable to the disastrous Republicans. In fact, I said that about as explicitly as I possibly could have. (And Quiggin, whom I was criticizing, is an Australian anyway.)

Perhaps you concluded that I was asking for Bush-style stupid decisiveness and mindless resolve. In that case, you concluded wrong. If you will allow me a “nuance”, the ideal leader will be both thoughful and decisives.

“John Kerry, in case you haven’t noticed, is a spectacularly dull and uninteresting person”:

maybe to someone who reads People Magazine a lot and watches a lot of reality TV. Please restate your point if you had one.


dipnut 09.04.04 at 12:51 am

Zizka, I’m not trying to zing. I applaud, sincerely, aspects of your comment. I note what I think is ironic. I opine that John Kerry is dumber than a barrel of hair, which is by far the nicest thing I can muster regarding Mr. Kerry.

None of it bears immediately on the absolute or relative merits of the Bush administration.


Zizka 09.04.04 at 3:36 am

I opine that you don’t know your butt from a hole in the ground regarding Kerry. Granted, he isn’t fun on TV the way Paris Hilton is.


Elizabeth 09.04.04 at 7:57 am

I for one am heartily sick of Ferguson’s ceasless lectures on British history — that great cornucopia from which the answers to all of America’s problems spill forth. I particularly resent his perverse exploitation of America’s foriegn policy challenges to vicariously relive the glory days of the British Empire.

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