The Stakes in 2004

The coming presidential election may be the most important in generations

Presidential elections are not created equal; certain elections have mattered more than others. Sometimes voters face a decision within narrow margins, as seemed to be the case in 2000, when the choice was between an incumbent Vice President in a relatively moderate Democratic Administration and a Republican governor who campaigned as what he called a "compassionate conservative." But other times the choice is starker. In 1864, 1868, and 1872 the Republicans stood for freeing the slaves and for military enforcement of black civil rights in the South; the Democrats were against both. In 1896 William Jennings Bryan stood for populism, free trade, and free silver; William McKinley stood for the gold standard and high tariffs. (And in 1900 Bryan and McKinley battled over the issue of American expansion abroad.) In 1936 Franklin Roosevelt stood for the New Deal, and Alf Landon stood against it. In 1940 Roosevelt's re-election would have meant a forward stance against the Axis powers; it is unclear whether Wendell Willkie would have gone so far.

More recently there have been elections in which the gap between the candidates was large, but the race itself was never close and the outcome never in doubt. Voters rejected Barry Goldwater's conservatism in 1964 and George McGovern's and Walter Mondale's liberalism in 1972 and 1984.

This year's election promises to be a relative rarity: the stakes are very high, and as of this writing the race seems to be very close. The nearest analogies may be 1940 (when it was not clear as late as July whether FDR would even run for a third term, let alone win it) and 1864 (when as late as the end of August, before Grant and Sherman won important victories over the Confederacy, it seemed likely that George McClellan would defeat Abraham Lincoln). Voters sense that much is at stake in the contest between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry—perhaps in part because it will either ratify or reject the results of 2000, an election that was more consequential, Americans now understand, than anyone thought at the time. Very early in the 2004 campaign 71 percent of those surveyed by the pollster Scott Rasmussen said that the outcome would influence their lives "a lot"; only 52 percent were willing to say as much when polled during the Florida-recount controversy in 2000.

The gap between the two candidates is substantial in virtually every area. In foreign policy, for example, George W. Bush has sought a more radical change in course than any other President since Harry Truman. Whereas Truman's Cold War policies—the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift—were supported by his 1948 opponent, Thomas Dewey, and largely continued by his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, many of Bush's post-9/11 policies—including the prosecution of the war in Iraq and the conduct of relations with allies such as France and Germany—have been harshly attacked by Kerry. Bush has issued a National Security Strategy endorsing pre-emptive war and unilateral military action by the United States under some circumstances, and has shifted from the traditional policy of merely seeking stability in the Middle East to a new policy of trying to advance freedom and democracy there. Kerry has criticized Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, and regularly criticizes what he has called "the most reckless, inept, arrogant, and ideological foreign policy in the modern history of our country." In foreign affairs a Kerry Administration would in all likelihood give greater weight to the views of, say, France and Germany, which opposed Bush on Iraq, and more deference to international organizations. In other words, a President Kerry would pursue a foreign policy that looked a lot more like the one the United States had before 9/11—and America would leave a smaller, lighter footprint in the world. A second Bush Administration, in contrast, would regard its return to office as a vindication of the approach we have seen so far.

On domestic matters Bush has governed further to the right than many anticipated he would—for instance, pushing through a series of big tax cuts, appointing a staunchly conservative Attorney General, and reducing the leverage of federal employees' unions. Meanwhile, the Democrats have moved left on some issues—notably free trade—and are proposing more in the way of tax increases and expansion of federal health-care programs than Clinton did after 1994. A second Bush term might well produce starker domestic-policy changes than a Kerry term would: free-trade agreements with more countries, individual investment accounts in Social Security, new tax-free savings vehicles. In contrast, Kerry's promised domestic agenda—higher taxes for higher earners, more government-supported health care, reduced accountability under the education law—seems unlikely to be approved absent changes in the composition of Congress, which no one is betting on. The Democrats have some chance of winning a majority in the Senate, but very little of winning one in the House; and although a majority in the Senate gives a party some leverage, a majority in the House, with its control over procedure on the floor, gives a party control. A re-elected Bush could count on pretty solid support in the House; a newly elected Kerry would need all Bill Clinton's maneuvering skills to get anything close to what he wanted from it. Still, the mere fact that a President Kerry would not push the things a President Bush would push is significant in itself. The Bush tax cuts, for instance, would not become permanent during a Kerry presidency; the 1996 welfare law might be greatly altered; and domestic spending might be increased more than Bush would allow.

Every election brings hand-wringing from one camp or another about the future of the Supreme Court, but the stakes this time could in fact be monumental. No new justices have been appointed for a decade (the second longest such period in history); given the age of the incumbents, the next President may appoint as many as four—an opportunity no President has had since Richard Nixon's first term. Justices appointed by the next President could remain on the Court through the 2030s; and although it is not clear that they would revisit Roe v. Wade or any other specific decision, the docket in the years ahead will almost certainly hold cases that chart the national direction on federalism and the place of religion in public life.

What will happen to the party that loses the presidency? After Al Gore's loss the Democrats moved to the left rhetorically and on issues such as trade and Social Security; Bill Clinton's New Democratic rhetoric now seems largely forgotten. It was only after three successive losses, in 1980, 1984, and 1988—that the Democrats, chastened, decided to take Clinton's centrist path in the first place. If Kerry loses, the Democrats will have a Clintonian option in Hillary Rodham Clinton; but after a defeat the party may be more open to a moderate challenger like the vice-presidential nominee, John Edwards—or a leftist insurgent like Howard Dean. As for the Republicans, a party in opposition has a tendency toward fissiparousness. If they lose the White House, will the working alliance between economic and cultural conservatives hold together? Will religious conservatives continue to exercise a veto over the party's nomination? Could a candidate like Rudolph Giuliani take the Republicans in a new, more libertarian direction? If the war in Iraq is seen as one of the causes of a Bush defeat, a bitter conflict could break out between neoconservative advocates of Bush's foreign policy, foreign-policy realists, and, perhaps, Pat Buchanan—style isolationists.

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood," begins one of Robert Frost's most famous poems. One cannot say with certainty where the Bush or the Kerry road would actually take us, but the divergence is not just rhetorical but real—and very wide indeed.