I listened to the debates in the 2004 presidential election hoping to hear that one of the candidates was not as pathetic as they appeared. I was disappointed.
During the “debate” on national security issues, in particular, not only was neither candidate personally reassuring but there seemed to be almost no substance to the actual argument. That was particularly frustrating because the talking heads of the media, and all the news stories the following day, kept referring to the “substantive” discussion. I wondered if I’d somehow tuned in to the Cliff Notes version of the debate, or perhaps the Debate for Dummies channel.
I wrote this to protest, to let the candidates know that they had not provided this “undecided” voter with any reason for my support — and to set down in writing, both for their sake and for my own, what it was I thought were the important questions in any debate on foreign policy in this election. I sent it to The Boston Globe and to The New York Times, but I also sent it by e-mail directly to both the Bush and Kerry campaigns. The silence was deafening.
4 October 2004
It has now been three days since the debate between the presidential candidates about foreign policy and security. In the current news climate, with our short attention spans and the frantic pace of the last days of the campaign, three days is forever: that debate is old news and only mentioned, if at all, for its effect on yesterdays polling numbers. We’ve moved on. Subject closed. The world is turning. Too much is happening tomorrow to dwell on yesterday.
And yet, three days does not seem an excessive period for reflection on such a subject. Perhaps I am old-fashioned or archaic, but I don’t think it is necessarily a good thing, this need to rush analysis onto the airwaves and into print. Sober assessment in the fullness of time still has value. And so I’ve just now committed my musings to paper, musings which depart somewhat from the instant analysis and the popular wisdom.
I must explain that I am one of the coveted undecided voters, although perhaps not typical and therefore perhaps not one at whom campaign messages are aimed. I lean toward traditionally conservative principles — political liberty coupled with civic responsibility and respect for normative social behavior; economic liberty restrained by a code of ethics and coupled with social conscience; robust and pragmatic domestic policing and national defense; fiscal prudence; and a government constrained against tyranny — and am, therefore, more likely to support a thoughtful and honest moderate Democrat than one of the current generation of anti-intellectual Republican ideologues tainted by their flirtations with theocracy and oligarchy. But I find that thoughtful and honest moderates are a species as rare and undervalued within the Democratic party as traditional conservatives are within the Republican party. I am undecided in this election not because I am indecisive, not because I cannot resolve who is the better candidate, but because a vote for either seems like a self-inflicted wound and I am searching for some reassurance that one is, perhaps, not really as appalling as he appears. For President Bush, that means convincing me that he and his staff are capable of acknowledging and learning from their mistakes of hubris and judgment, and of adjusting their thinking and their policies accordingly to salvage what we can from the chaos in Iraq and at home. For Senator Kerry, that means convincing me that all his nuance and deliberation fit consistently within some rational and acceptable strategic and moral framework rather than reflecting mere mental anarchy — and that he has the political backbone to articulate and stick to a policy even if it offends the entrenched interests of some Democratic constituency or of socialistic European intellectuals.