TCS Daily

The Politics of Avoiding the Question

By Douglas Kern - July 13, 2004 12:00 AM

When gauging the political will of the American people, why don't pollsters permit Americans to express a preference for the option that so many of them love best: "I Don't Even Want to Think About It?" If we could understand the depth and scope of America's desire to not think, we might better understand the eternal popularity of position-switching opportunists with limited principles. And perhaps we would discover that a preference for flip-floppers is not necessarily irrational; sometimes, flip-floppers can serve as a firewall against conflicts that we want to avoid.

Many American presidents have been elected on the merit of being Not That Other Scary Loudmouth. In 1856, Americans elected James Buchanan in large part because his stand on slavery was more inscrutable than those of his opponents, John C. Fremont and Millard Fillmore. Fremont was everything that anyone could want in a presidential candidate: smart, articulate, accomplished, and popular -- but he suffered from having a clear opinion about slavery. Buchanan was not so encumbered. A vote for Buchanan was not a choice, but a vote against the odious burden of choosing.

Similarly, in 1920, Americans elected Warren G. Harding because his stand on foreign policy was flatly incomprehensible -- in contrast to the clearly-defined crusades that his opponent, James Cox, propounded. After eight years of Wilsonian adventuring, world wars, Palmer raids, and endless introspection about America's Role In a Changing Geo-Political World Order, the prospect of a glad-handing Midwestern backslapper was vastly preferable to four more years of Democrat drama. Harding's extraordinary gift for banality -- the same gift that reduced H. L. Mencken to stammering incoherence -- was precisely what elevated him to high office.

More recently, the politics of avoiding the question have shaped the issue of abortion. Americans have struck an unspoken pact with their presidents and president manqués: You can take whatever position you like about abortion; you can appoint whomever you like to the bench, and you can pass whatever Executive Orders you can slide into law in the middle of the night -- but don't thrust a national argument upon us. Thus, presidents nibble at the edges of the abortion debate, contenting themselves with rhetorical sham-fights while cheerfully ceding the heavy lifting of abortion policy to the delightfully unelected federal judiciary. Bill Clinton captured the position of the American people when he called for abortion to be "safe, legal, and rare." Ideologues on both sides of the issue observed that such a formulation was useless as a guide to public policy and incoherent as a matter of philosophy, but so what? America cherishes its contradictory opinions, and punishes anyone who exposes them.

For that reason, Americans punished the Republican Party during the Clinton impeachment. Americans relish the sexual exploits of their celebrities, even as they want their leaders to be pristine exemplars of traditional American morality. But when the celebrity in question is a politician, what to do? Condemnation on sexual matters has been out of vogue for decades. But condemnation of politicians for hypocrisy and dishonesty is a national pastime. Faced with irreconcilable inclinations, the American people simply wanted the matter to go away. The Republicans would not let it go away. And so, for failing to let America avoid the question, the Republicans suffered at the ballot box. In the eyes of America, the crime of fracturing the country with an embarrassing dilemma was far worse than any crime Clinton may have committed.

In each of these instances, Americans faced divisive questions that could (and sometimes did) spill over into bloody partisan battles. And vicious partisanship can be crippling in a system of government such as ours, which rewards consensus and centrism with political effectiveness while ostracizing extremism with irrelevance. Ever since the unanimous election of George Washington, America's political tradition has preferred uniters, not dividers. To preserve America's inclination towards consensus -- or the comforting illusion thereof -- America embraces the double-talker and the promise-breaker in its political sphere.

In the current presidential election, John Kerry -- whether by choice or by accident -- is playing the politics of avoiding the question aggressively. Dick Morris observes that Kerry got the Democratic nomination largely by being Not Howard Dean. Notes Morris in his June 22, 2004 New York Post column: "Only the stealth candidate -- the modern dark horse, who hides in the shadows of his opponent -- can make it all the way to the finish line intact." Kerry's political flip-flops have become the stuff of comedy among late-night talk-show hosts. And numerous political observers note that Kerry's polling numbers seem keyed to the rise and fall of George W. Bush's popularity, rather than anything Kerry does. Indeed, as Mickey Kaus writes in his June 30, 2004 blog entry, "Actually, the Kerry team appears to have gone beyond a mere passive hide-the-candidate strategy and taken it to the next level, pursuing a pro-active make-the-voters-forget-the-candidate strategy. [...] The voters actually know less about Kerry the more the campaign progresses." On the strength of this ignorance, Kerry is now running neck-and-neck with Bush at the polls.

The question of combating terrorism is undeniably divisive and uncomfortable. And Bush's uncompromising stand on the issue has exacerbated that division. Can Kerry win by being Not George Bush? Can the politics of avoiding the question prevail in 2004?

I doubt it. Now that America is at war, terrorism is a question that can no longer be avoided.

There's a name for people who don't want to talk about the war on terrorism. They're called "Democrats." The Democratic party cannot resolve its desire to resist terrorism with its natural inclination to blame foreign hatred on America's shortcomings, and to resist solutions predicated on the overwhelming application of military force. As the question of terrorism is too painful to confront, the Democrats largely avoid it.

What exactly is the Democrat long-term anti-terrorist strategy? Pursuing terrorists as criminals? Such a "plan" will deter no fanatic; the threat of prosecution did not and could not prevent 9/11. Nitpicking over Bush's plan for pacifying Iraq? That's a debate over tactics, not strategy. Consulting with allies? That's not a plan. That's a plan to get a plan -- someone else's plan.

Any tough-minded approach to terrorism will necessarily annoy craven allies, increase the stature and prestige of the military, and tacitly repudiate the half-hearted anti-terrorist measures taken under Clinton. With the exceptions of Senators Miller and Lieberman, no national Democrat can stomach such measures. Even the Atkins diet doesn't call for eating that much crow.

Republicans and independents want to talk about terrorism. They understand terrorism not as an irritant to be avoided, but as a problem that must be confronted and solved. Thus we see the emergence of 9/11 voters -- independents to whom the war on terror is the primary voting consideration. These voters will gravitate towards Bush, since Bush shares their view -- the war on terror is his primary consideration, too.

Have we forgotten 9/11? The Bush campaign will remind us. Our recollections will be refreshed on the third anniversary. And our terrorist enemies are just stupid enough to jog our memories sometime before November.

I still get angry upon seeing the pictures of people jumping from the World Trade Center. I'm not alone. And in 2004, that national anger votes for its first President.

To be sure, Bush's strategy -- deterring terrorism by dismantling the regimes and cultures that foster it -- is a radical approach with which reasonable people may differ. But Bush is confronting the problem. Kerry isn't. So do the math: Republican vote + independent vote = second term for Bush.

Forget the polls. If Kerry can devise a credible solution to terrorism that rests on something other than the efficacy of French bureaucrats and federal subpoenas, he'll sway independents and likely win the election. Otherwise, he'll lose. Americans elect Buchanans and Hardings for the purpose of avoiding fights. But, once embroiled in a fight, Americans vote for Lincolns and Eisenhowers -- hawkish men who want to win. Bush wants to win our fight, which is why he'll probably win his own.


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