In the next few days the media and the blogosphere will be full of opinions on why he won and what it means for the future. I will be reading and learning. Some of it will be valuable; some of it will be completely misleading and probably a waste of time (like all the pre-election stuff I read about the “youth vote” and how voters always “break for the challenger”).
Before my mind becomes tainted and confused again I wanted to write down my own thoughts on this election and what it means. I’ve long thought that pundits and commentators should be evaluated on their ability to predict the future. Now somebody else (if anybody cares) has something to criticize me for.
I (and many others) have been complaining about the state of democracy in the U.S. Partisan redistricting, the Electoral College, and low participation rates are all aspects of U.S. democracy that favor cynical manipulation and polarizing views over intelligent and constructive discussion about things that matter. Since re-election is not an option Bush himself may not care that much but I fully expect other Republican leaders to fight tooth and nail to consolidate and increase their gains. Except for a few Senators who are becoming increasingly marginalized I don’t think there is anybody in the party leadership who has any concern on this issue outside of their own narrow self interest and self preservation. I will be very, very surprised if any of the inevitable post-election calls for electoral reform gain any traction at all within the one-party machinery of government. If anything, things are likely to get worse as Bush himself starts thinking about his legacy and retreats from the minutia of government even more while his minions feel they have free rains to exploit issues, consolidate power and push limits of decency even further.
Congress will become even more corrupt, just like the Democrats did in the seventies when they held all branches of government. By the end of Bush’s term the whole Republican Party will be deeply unpopular, with the possible exception of a moderate and fiscally conservative wing led by somebody like John McCain. I fully expect the Democratic candidate to win in 2008. If he is somebody who can unite and inspire the country (Kennedy, Bill Clinton) then he may be able to reverse the decline set in motion by Bush. If he is another polarizing figure (such as Hillary Clinton, possibly a John Kerry look-a-like) then conservatives will go back to the attack mode of the 90’s and the fall will continue.
Ditto for civil liberties. I fully expect fear-mongering Republicans to use “terror” as an excuse to strengthen the Patriot Act, especially if America suffers from another attack on its soil. For the time being the Supreme Court will act as a constraining influence and roll back the most outrageous violations (as it has done in the past year or so) but the Bush appointment of two or three new justices will make them more agreeable. A more Republican Congress will completely bend over backwards as usual, at least while Bush is still popular. One caveat; whomever occupies the State department may convince Bush to soften some of the most glaring civil rights violations, especially those that affect citizens of other rich countries (such as Guantanamo Bay). The military may speak out as well.
The situation will get a lot worse before it gets any better. As I see it, there is no way Iraq will become a well-functioning democracy with independent courts, free elections, a free press and a working market economy with all the institutions required to support it. That would take a decade-long international effort. The best we can hope for is a stable regime led by a strongman friendly to the west who doesn’t abuse his people too much (someone like Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak). Then Bush may be able to declare yet another fake “mission accomplished” and significantly reduce the troop deployments. Or it may just disintegrate into a full civil war. Either way I don’t expect any major international support until the security situation has improved dramatically.
Al Qaeda / Terrorism
The infamous Al Qaeda is probably beyond Bush’s control. I really don’t know what their deal is right now. I suspect Peter Bergen is right in his assumption that Al Qaeda would have hit US soil a second time if they could. The most recent Osama tape where speaks of “bankrupting” the United States seems a bit desperate. He won’t bankrupt anybody, sooner or later law enforcement and other officials will have enough data points to figure out what works and what doesn’t so they won’t have to spend such ridiculous amounts of money on pointless anti-terror measures. Maybe he’ll manage to turn Al Q into a political movement but being world’s most hunted man must complicate things.
Slowly but surely the anti-terrorism efforts will start looking more like law enforcement and less like a “war” (although Bush will keep calling it a “war”). It just doesn’t make any sense to run a war when you don’t know who the enemy is. Bush will continue to talk tough with various Middle Eastern states (Syria, Iran, etc.) and I actually think he’ll make some progress on that front. As Ghadaffi of Libya has shown, the old Soviet-era logic of tough talk and power “posturing” is a proven way to make foreign leaders do what you want. That, in fact, is why Bush could have gotten a lot further with Saddam if he had waited a bit longer (assuming Saddam was capable of perceiving the reality of the threat at all, which I guess we’ll never know). You can count on powerful people to care about their own self-preservation. Random terrorists and suicide bombers is a completely different matter.
The whole conflict with Islamic Jihadists will, in the long-term, reach one of two states: We’ll learn to live with it just like the Spanish have learned to live with ETA, or some world leader (by necessity an American one) will force Israel and the Palestinians to reach a peaceful agreement, at which point the Jihadists whole reason for being will disappear. Bush will definitely not be that world leader, hence we’ll just slowly move closer towards co-existence.
The other issue inspiring the Jihadists – foreign support for Arab dictatorships – is not likely to change under Bush either. He won’t do much, if anything at all, to reduce US dependency on foreign oil because that would go against the interests of his oil-business friends. Besides, this would be a long-term project whose benefit would come long after Bush so I can’t possibly see why he would even bother. I can’t think of a single thing he has done for simply ideological reasons. If it doesn’t fire up the base, bring short-term benefits or allow him to talk about lofty feel-good ideas (such as “freedom” or “American values”) then it’s not worth doing.
Expect even more anti-environment and business-friendly initiatives thinly disguised as pro-environment plans (such as the Clear Skies initiative).
America’s standing in the World
Foreign leaders will try to be polite for a while and profess their support for the Office of the President, but after a while they’ll criticize him more openly. After all the big carrot (that he won’t be re-elected so they can deal with more understanding president) is gone. Other foreigners will reflect on the fact that the Bush presidency was not a one-time mistake committed by a people who are really, deep down, quite sympathetic towards them, and their antipathy towards Bush will increasingly translate into antipathy towards all Americans. Expect fewer au-pairs, foreign students, tourists and global American pop stars. Europeans may put more of their faith and energies into the European Union, which in the short run may give Europe a boost. In the long term I fear its military could become more independent and strong, although this will depend a lot on the British. Fewer Americans will travel to destinations outside Mexico and the Caribbean thus further contribution to their isolation and ignorance.
Bottom line, I guess I’m not very optimistic about America’s future. Almost all the things I admire (civil liberty, respect for the law, equality, sense of responsibility, diversity, optimism, decency) seem to have declined under Bush and I see no reason for change now that he’s been re-elected. Many of the things I despise (nepotism, prejudice, corruption, dishonesty, moral decay, self-righteousness, isolationism, ignorance, materialism) are on the rise.
I may just be suffering from post-election depression but I can’t help but think that the country has reached a critical turning point in its history. I just don’t see America acting as a Great Nation anymore. My neighbor greeted me this morning with the following statement: “Anybody who could vote for Kerry after he endorsed Osama Bin Laden, and being endorsed by Bin Laden on TV, is a fool”. A good number of Bush supporters would probably agree with him. Just like they think Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks. Can you blame me for being a little pessimistic??