SANTA FE, New Mexico — The ballot counting goes on in New Mexico, the battleground state closest to Northeast Asia and U.S. Democrats’ last stand, but to what avail? With the presidential election already decided, only the political arithmetic remains.
Amazingly, only two states changed hands in four years, New Hampshire, with its four electoral votes going from President George W. Bush to Sen. John Kerry and Iowa with its seven electoral votes going to Bush for a net gain of three for the president. (The rest of his Electoral College majority came from population shifts to the red states.)
Only New Mexico stands in the way of a virtual “red” (conservative) state sweep — between the East and West coasts with the results due at the end of the week. Symbolically that’s important since the election outcome was decided largely on the basis of the domestic agenda in which cultural values trumped foreign policy.
In a sense, voters, mindful of the twin themes of the Kerry campaign, decided that it was more important to be “strong at home” than “respected abroad.”
For Republicans, however, strong at home meant opposition to same-sex marriage, partial-birth abortions and the dictates of the liberal elite in favor of core American values infused with intense religiosity, while ignoring the immorality of income disparity, job losses and absence of health insurance for a large and growing percentage of the population (15 to 20 percent).
“Respected abroad” meant military power, allowing Washington to throw its weight around willy-nilly, regardless of the cause or consequence, according to the whims of the Bush inner circle. However, this won’t wash in a second term.
In percentage terms, though, Bush’s substantial majority (3,500,000) of the popular vote was just 2 percent of the total vote of approximately 116,000,000. Similarly, 2 percent separated the two candidates (about 150,000 votes out of 5,000,000) in Ohio, the critical swing state for electoral votes. Even the total Electoral College margin was rather thin at roughly 5 percent, damping any claim of an overwhelming mandate.
Nor, in the end, do the election results mean that foreign policy is unimportant. Indeed, to succeed in a second term, the Bush administration will have to rethink policy assumptions and, in several instances, including most prominently Iraq and North Korea, go part of the way toward adopting policies advocated by Kerry during the campaign: in the former case, reaching out to traditional alliance partners; in the latter, talking directly with an adversary.
However, this will not happen overnight. There will be a transition of sorts — not between parties but between individuals. In particular, Bush’s national security team will be repositioned and its policies recalibrated. The expected departure of the cautionary Secretary of State Colin Powell will not necessarily leave the hardline Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the ascendancy. His replacement by Condolezza Rice may actually result in a more evenhanded and integrated approach. And her successor as national security adviser will also have a bearing on the ultimate balancing-out process.
It is no secret that hardline Bush policies have produced disenchantment with American policies in too many world capitals. And it would be hard not to believe that there has been a certain inward rethinking by top administration officials of why this is the case and to correct it in a second term.
A president for whom likability was a key factor in his re-election bid cannot be happy with the dismal poll numbers from abroad. This is one global test that Bush cannot afford to fail.
In this regard, if Bush is to be taken at his word, and really seeks to be a uniter and not a divider, a bipartisan foreign policy is a prerequisite during his second term. This is where the challenge is greatest, but shaping such a consensus will not be easy.
Here, Kerry, as a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, could play an important role. It is not too far-fetched to imagine that he, or his colleague and campaign adviser, Sen. Joe Biden, could help reconnect U.S. policies and U.N. prerequisites — perhaps even as a U.S. ambassador signaling that Washington is serious about placing renewed emphasis on that institution.
The Achilles heel of the Bush administration’s foreign policy in the first term was its ideological bent. It came to office disbelieving and demeaning nation-building efforts; therefore, that it has failed mightily at the task in Iraq so far is no surprise. Whether bipartisanship and more rational analysis of policy choices can overcome ideological prescriptions remains to be seen.
In what New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has termed the “red zone,” Americans are not indifferent but rather uneasy and conflicted about the Bush administration’s conduct of foreign policy, yet they were ready to give the president the benefit of the doubt. For “blue state” liberals, though, there is no doubt when a leader deceives or misleads or shifts rationales in midstream.
How much simpler it would have been for the president to admit that the intelligence was wrong on Iraq, our fears were misplaced and we were better off as a result (since American troops didn’t have to face chemical or biological weapons on the battlefield). Yet Bush even got a pass on missing lethal explosives and failing to catch al–Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on the lam from his red-state supporters in the waning days of the campaign.
What it comes down to is the difference between truth and belief. The most worrisome aspect of Election 2004 in terms of American democracy is the knowledge that belief can trump truth as the ultimate arbiter of policymaking and that Americans are now disposed to follow the leader — wherever he may lead them.
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