With one phrase Dick Gephardt has defined the issue to be decided next November. Can a "miserable failure" of a president win re-election? Bush's victory would testify to a civic failure more dangerous to the American future than any policies implemented or continued during a second Bush term. A majority would have demonstrated that democratic accountability is finished. That you can fail in everything and still be re-elected president.
You can preside over the most catastrophic failure of intelligence and national defense in history. Can fire no one associated with this fatal chain of blunders and bureaucratic buck-passing. Can oppose an inquest into September 11 for more than a year until pressure from the relatives of those killed on that day becomes politically toxic. Can name Henry Kissinger, that mortician of truth, to head the independent commission you finally accede to. You can start an unnecessary war that kills hundreds of Americans and as many as 7,000 Iraqi civilians—adjusted for the difference in population, the equivalent of 80,000 Americans. Can occupy Iraq without a plan to restore traffic lights, much less order. Can make American soldiers targets in a war of attrition conducted by snipers, assassins, and planters of remote-control bombs—and taunt the murderers of our young men to "bring it on." Can spend hundreds of billions of dollars on nation building—and pass the bill to America's children. (Asked to consider rescinding your tax cut for the top one percent of taxpayers for one year in order to fund the $87 billion you requested from Congress to pay for the occupation of Iraq, your Vice President said no; that would slow growth.) You can lose more jobs than any other President since Hoover. You can cut cops and after-school programs and Pell Grants and housing allowances for the poor to give tax cuts to millionaires. You can wreck the nation's finances, running up the largest deficit in history. You can permit 17,000 power plants to increase their health-endangering pollution of the air. You can lower the prestige of the United States in every country of the world by your unilateral conduct of foreign policy and puerile "you're either with us or against us" rhetoric. Above all, you can lie the country into war and your lies can be exposed—and, if a majority prefers ignorance to civic responsibility, you can still be reelected.
Even Republicans must be capable of applying a cost-benefit analysis to this record of miserable failure. Their tax cuts on one side, the burden of Bush-begotten debt on their children on the other. And surely even Republicans breathe the air befouled by those power plants. I have it on good authority that the conservatives in the party do as well. Surely they must question the judgment of a President who proposes to turn Iraq into what James Fallows calls "the fifty-first state" in order to bring democracy to the Middle East—the kind of do-gooder fantasy conservatives have long ridiculed in liberals.
But the election won't be decided by Republicans and conservatives. Most will sacrifice independent judgment to ideology or party and vote for Bush. No, swing voters will pick the next President. They vote the man not the party, character not ideology. Many voted for Bush in 2000 because they liked him better than Al Gore—applying the standards of product acceptability to a job that entrusts its holder with the power to blow up the planet. Well, do they still "like" Bush? I fear many do. After all, he has spared them the embarrassment of having to discuss sex with their children. Swing voters like Bush's "image" as a strong leader, a CNN pundit claims. Are they incapable of looking behind that image and seeing the weak President who stayed away from the White House on September 11 because his Vice President said it was not safe for him to be there and whose PR people lied to cover up his failure of leadership? John F. Kennedy, as R. W. Apple wrote on the front page of The New York Times on September 12, remained in the White House throughout the Cuban missile crisis knowing that it would be hit in any nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.
The Founders feared that the republic would succumb to corruption without republican citizenship—without citizens who could transcend privatism and hold elected officials to account, demanding probity and competence, and judging their performance against both the clamorous necessities of the time and the mute claims of posterity. They made property a criterion for voting because it secured a measure of economic independence. Property-less wage laborers, they feared, would vote as their employers instructed them to. The extension of democracy to those who could not rise to the responsibilities of republican freedom would corrupt the republic—hasten its decay into oligarchy or mob rule.
For all their worldliness the Founders were naïve to regard property as a shield of incorruptibility or the property-less as inherently corruptible. Their core insight, however, remains valid. A republic can be corrupted at the top and bottom, by leaders and led. The re-election of George W. Bush would signal that a kind of corruption had set in among the led. Our miserable failure as republican citizens would match his as President.