With the country in such dire straits, we very well may have arrived at a once-in-a-generation moment for making big, bold moves that pivot the country in a new, progressive direction. If successful, the blueish shift we've witnessed in 2006 and 2008 could solidify into a long-term realignment of the electorate. As Barack likes to say, this is our moment. This is our time.
We all can recite the litany of events from the last eight years which brought us to this point. But what if a single, key event had changed? Would the dawn of a new, progressive era in the country's politics still seem as likely? Would a political realignment be in the works? Consider this: what if John F. Kerry had defeated George W. Bush in 2004?
Given that Bush was reelected, it's clear that as of November 2, 2004 the country as a whole did not yet view his tenure poorly, much less as a disaster. Remarkable though it may seem in hindsight, his approval/disapproval rating at the time hovered in the +0 to +5 range. Of course, many disasters had yet to occur, or past ones to be revealed, which ultimately would upend this perception. But not only would these events significantly alter public perception of Bush himself, they would also tarnished the Republican party as a whole.
How many of these events would have occurred with Kerry in the White House? How would Kerry have reacted? How would today's public perception of the two parties been affected if Kerry had been president the last four years?
Let's speculate. Below is a thought experiment that follows one potential alternate path from 2004 to today. The focus is on the public's perception of the two major political parties as events unfold.
Iraq: The day after John Kerry's victory, the country is split on the Iraq war. Despite the ongoing death toll and revelations of torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, at least half the country subscribes to Colin Powell's "you break it, you bought it" theory. They believe we must stay until the country stabilizes. Polls just prior to the election showed a majority viewed Republicans as better able to handle the situation, so Kerry's victory is not viewed as a mandate for a major shift in direction. Staying in line with what he had alluded to during the campaign, Kerry institutes a temporary troop "surge." He also directs the army to accelerate delivery of better armored Humvees to the troops. In addition he reengages with allies, offering greater participation in reconstruction contracts. He is able to garner additional financial aid, but no one wants to send more of their troops into the Iraq meat grinder.
Just one year later, violence has worsened. An ABC News/Washington Post poll shows 64% of the country does not approve of the way President Kerry is handling the war, and Republicans are trusted over Democrats to handle the war by 48% to 37%. After all, things seemed "winnable" when a Republican was in charge. Conservatives pound on the "Democrats are weak on national defense" and "it's all Kerry's fault" memes, which are looped endlessly by corporate media and solidify into conventional wisdom. By 2006, conditions on the ground in Iraq have deteriorated further. Kerry declares that the U.S. should not continue to mediate what has devolved into a civil war, and announces plans for troop withdrawls. Those on the right howl that that Democratic incompetence have led to a surrender to terrorists. When the troop withdrawls begin, violence spikes. Kerry argues that the rise is expected but temporary. He "pauses" further withdrawls, but violence worsens further. Troop levels are temporarily increased to quell the violence. All along the way, right wing radio eviscerates him, and its following grows. Late night comedians mock Kerry's indecisiveness. The public decides he's botched the whole thing. In the midterm elections, Republicans pick up seven seats in the House and two in the Senate.
Afghanistan: Neglect of the war in Afghanistan, and its implications for a resurgent Taliban, are not a significant topic during the 2004 election and so have not yet entered the general public consciousness. Some of the troops withdrawn from Iraq are redeployed to Afghanistan. But the pace is too slow and the Taliban too elusive. By 2007, outbreaks of violence in Afgahnistan begin getting coverage on cable news. Congressional Republicans hold hearings to get to the bottom of how the Kerry administration has undermined Bush's "victory" against the Taliban.
North Korea: While the Bush administration had already walked away from its commitments under the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework of October 1994, the implications of that move were not visible to anyone but policy wonks in 2004. Upon entering office the Kerry administration quickly reverses course and renews talks. Conservatives mock what they view as a hopelessly naive policy of engagement with a rogue state. On October 9, 2006, North Korea does NOT detonate a nulcear device. No one notices. The failure of Bush's policy is not brought to light.
Rule of Law: Upon entering office, John Kerry and his Attorney General discover that the Bush administration has secretly engaged for years in warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. Kerry quietly issues a new executive order rescinding this aspect of the Bush terrorist surveillance program. It is never exposed to the public. There is never a public debate over updating FISA and providing retroactive immunity to telcos. These secrets are swept under the rug and never taint the GOP.
The Kerry administration never proposes a Military Commissions Act. The specter of denying habeaus corpus to "unlawful enemy combatants," or anyone else for that matter, is never raised, and so never becomes associated with Republicans.
Hurricane Katrina strikes in August 2005, early in Kerry's term. The federal response is swift, and Kerry is personally involved even before the hurricane makes landfall. But while his head of FEMA is highly qualified and competent, he has been struggling to reinvigorate an agency that quietly atrophied under Bush, and that process is only seven months old.
Handoffs are missed in coordinating the response from federal, state, and local teams that lead to delays during initial rescue efforts. Aid is quick to arrive at some locales, but inexplicably misses others. Looting erupts in New Orleans. Mayor Ray Nagin complains in a press conference that he isn't getting all the support he needs. In the aftermath, Republicans in Congress gravely shake their heads and hold hearings to assess why Kerry's Department of Homeland Security failed to respond adequately to one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
U.S. Attorneys: At the beginning of Kerry's term, all 93 U.S. Attorneys appointed by President Bush follow the tradition of submitting letters of resignation. Kerry eventually accepts the vast majority of these resignations, and appoints Democrats in their place. There are no mid-term firings of U.S. Attorneys for political purposes. No hearings are held on the matter, so Monica Goodling never testifies that she "crossed the line" in taking political views into account when making hiring decisions. Accusations and subpoenas are never issued. No one is forced to resign over the matter. Republican politicization of the Department of Justice under Bush never sees the harsh light of day.
Alberto Gonzalez is never appointed as Attorney General of the United States of America. Consequently, he is never forced to resign in disgrace.
Supreme Court: Sandra Day O'Connor resigns from the U.S. Supreme Court on July 1, 2005. Kerry, faced with a Republican-controlled Senate, nominates a centrist federal Appeals Court judge to succeed her. On September 3, 2005, William Rehnquist passes away. Kerry names another centrist to succeed Rehnquist as Chief Justice. Both appointments generate a great deal of squawking from the right, but ultimately are confirmed by the Senate. John Roberts and Samuel Alito are never appointed to the Court.
Economy: In the Fall of 2005, the once booming housing market screeches to an abrubt halt, as median prices nationwide tumble 3.3 percent. The slowdown continues through 2006, and accelerates further heading into 2007. In February 2007, the subprime mortgage industry collapses, and foreclosures double over what was seen in 2006. On April 2 the country's largest subprime lender, New Century Financial, declars bankruptcy. Others gradually follow suit, and by August the country's largest overall mortgage lender, Countrywide Financial, must accept an emergency loan from a group of banks to keep it afloat. President Kerry proposes a one billion dollar bailout fund for homeowners at risk of losing their homes. Congress balks at the price tag. A more limited bailout passes, but is like a bandaide on a severed limb. By September, housing prices have declined for nine straight months. The Federal Reserve gradually cuts interest rates, and injects $40 billion into the money supply for banks to borrow at a low rate.
U.S. economic malaise worsens in 2008, and the price of gasoline hits $4 per gallon. Finally, Lehman Brothers goes bankrupt in September 2008, triggering a panic that leads to a $700 billion bailout for the financial industry. Republicans never seem to get tired of uttering the phrases "tax and spend" and "worst financial crisis since the Great Depression." John Kerry gives a televised address to discuss the crisis with an anxious nation. He tries to explain what a credit default swap is, but his delivery is stilted and his words don't resonate with the public. Democrats blanket the talk shows trying to describe how the mess could be traced to an obscure but lengthy (262 page) amendment added to a commodities bill by Phil Grahm in 2000, but all that low-information voters seem able to grasp is that everything seemed fine until Kerry took over.
In his bid for reelection, Kerry is defeated in a landslide. Republicans pick up eight seats in the House and 1 more in the Senate.
Postscript: This is just one alternate path that history could have taken had Kerry been elected; obviously, many others are possible. Undoubtedly, he would also have accomplished some good things which are not forseen here. But what's intriguing is that that Bush and his cohorts in Congress had poisoned the well of governance during his first term, but in many cases that poison did not penetrate public awareness until his second term -- and blame would quite possibly have been assigned to whoever was in charge at the time. Also, without his reelection, unpopular actions from Bush's second term would never had occurred, so would never have tarnished the GOP brand.
Of course, Republicans in Congress did pretty good job of tarnishing themselves with scandals before the 2006 elections, and Bush's first-term misqueues would not have been totally ignored by the voters. But still, it's evident that Bush's second term more directly harmed the GOP than did the first on its own. And without that added harm (with the GOP having no one to blame but themselves), it seems likely we wouldn't be facing the prospect of a long-term progressive realignment so soon.
Am I glad Bush won reelection? Hell no. The bouillabaise of relief, joy, and hope I enjoyed on this year's election night stood in stark contrast to the thin gruel of disbelief, depression, and disgust I endured four years ago. Afterward I was despondant for weeks -- though to be truthful, my vote was cast more against Bush than for Kerry. But it's nice to take solice in the idea that Bush's disasterous relection at least laid the groundwork to accelerate a new progressive world order.