TCS Daily

Sympathy for the Undecided

By Arnold Kling - September 30, 2004 12:00 AM

"Who are these undecided people, and why do they bother to vote?"
-- Stephen "VodkaPundit" Green

While I am not undecided myself, I do not share the VodkaPundit's disdain. In fact, I am downright sympathetic with undecided voters.

My Big Mistake

First of all, I am humble about expressing my political preferences. After all, I made a big mistake last time.

In 2000, I voted for Al Gore. I knew that his positions on economics issues, such as Social Security, education vouchers, and class warfare, were incompatible with mine. But nonetheless I thought that he would bring in a better economic team than George Bush. My problem with George Bush was on issues such as the death penalty and gay marriage, where I did not even agree with him, much less share his moral certitude.

Shortly after the election, I regretted my choice. I believed at the time, and I believe even more strongly now, that Al Gore's decision to contest the election results was irresponsible and divisive.

In a close election, what Thomas Sowell might call "the search for cosmic justice" is futile. The right thing to do was to concede the election and move on. Gore's legal challenge was the most damaging act in the American body politic since the McCarthy era.

In the 1950's, the Republican right wing went insane over the fact that a Communist revolution took place in China. They charged the Democratic Party and the State Department with "losing" China. They made it politically impossible for the United States to even recognize China until the 1970's. For more than two decades, we treated the government of China as illegitimate and tried to act as if the country did not exist.

In similar fashion, the Democratic left wing has gone berserk over the 2000 election. They treat the Bush Administration as illegitimate. They wallow in paranoia and conspiracy theories.

Had I known that Al Gore was going to launch such a post-election intifada, I would never have voted for him. Given how badly I feel about that episode, I cannot state that I have much confidence that I won't regret my choice this year.

Domestic Policy

On domestic policy issues, I find myself in the same position that I was in back in 2000.

-- On social issues, I tend to prefer the Democrats.

-- On economic issues, I tend to prefer the rhetoric of the Republicans to the rhetoric of the Democrats. On the other hand, the track record, going at least as far back as Richard Nixon, is for Republicans to give economists relatively little influence in their Administrations, with highly erratic policies as a result. Democrats, on the other hand, have made some very good economic appointments: Alfred Kahn and Paul Volcker were good choices by President Carter. Robert Rubin and Larry Summers were good choices by President Clinton. (Overall, I think that Clinton is over-rated on economic policy, and Carter is under-rated. Clinton enjoyed a perfect economic climate. Carter, thanks in large part to Nixon, inherited something closer to a perfect storm.)

Given the pattern in economic policy, it is really difficult to make a choice. If I were to vote for Senator Kerry, I would be voting, as I did in 2000, for a candidate who takes positions that are explicitly contrary to my own. If I were to vote for President Bush, I would be voting for someone who I thought in 2000 was not going to seek the best economic advice -- and who has done little to surprise me on that score.

Foreign Policy Fallback Positions

It is only slightly easier for me to make a decision based on foreign policy. As I write this, the Bush-Kerry debate (or joint press conference) on foreign policy has yet to take place. If I were allowed to ask a question, it would pertain to the war on terrorism: "What's your fallback position?"

I am worried about fallback positions, because both candidates are promoting long-shot strategies for victory. I am pretty sure that whoever is elected we will need a fallback position.

President Bush's long-shot strategy is to push democracy in the Middle East. I agree that in theory there would be fewer young men entering the terrorism funnel if there were more democratic regimes in the Arab world. I also agree that democracy is the best form of government for everyone, regardless of race or religion.

Where I think that President Bush is pursuing a long shot is in counting on American might and nation-building to produce democracy in Iraq and elsewhere. Our track record on this, in our own hemisphere and under much less stressful conditions, is abysmal. For exhibit A, I give you Haiti.

Senator Kerry's grand strategy is to win over France and Germany and to be more popular in the United Nations. In other words, he is counting on the military might of NATO and the moral strength of the United Nations to win the war on terror. I think we'll see Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq -- and prosperity in Haiti -- before that happens.

The chances are that Iraq is not going to be the inspiration for a flowering of democracy in the Middle East. The chances are that the UN is not going to meet the Wizard of Oz and become endowed with brains, heart, and courage. So then, what are we going to do? Neither candidate wants to say. In that sense, as far as actual foreign policy goes, one could argue that we are choosing blind. The most likely policy steps -- the fallback positions -- are not under public discussion.

Character and Leadership

President Bush's supporters point with pride to his moral clarity in asserting that terrorism is evil. Since when did the bar get so low?

You would think that only a moral idiot would fail to see the evil of the Islamic extremists and instead focus on the faults of the United States. The reality is that there are a lot of moral idiots (should I say Moore-al idiots?) running around. Still, I am not prepared to concede that only George Bush is capable of standing up for our nation and its values.

I believe that President Bush would be a better leader if he were more open to nuances. Perhaps not moral nuances, but strategic and tactical nuances. I worry that he is so focused on the democratization strategy that he will not engage sufficiently in what I call The Battle of the Mosque.

In the end, however, any misgivings I have about George Bush are swamped by my concerns about John Kerry. These concerns are related to the so-called flip-flop issue.

I have nothing against a leader who changes his mind. Both Kerry and Bush have done so, and neither one is particularly good about admitting it.

However, President Bush is comfortable with taking responsibility for the decisions he has made. Senator Kerry shows no comfort at all with any of his positions. He does not flip-flop so much as he straddles. He tries to stay uncommitted. He reminds me of humorist Mort Sahl, who would joke, "If I have offended anyone, I am prepared not only to take back what I said but to deny under oath that I even said it."

It strikes me that most of the passion behind the Swiftvet opposition to Kerry stems from his accusations of war crimes committed by U.S. servicemen in Vietnam. To veterans who were hurt by those accusations, it must be infuriating to see Kerry now campaigning with servicemen as his "band of brothers." In order to defuse that anger, he needs to take a clear stand. He needs to either defend those accusations or apologize for making them in the heat of anger. Instead, Kerry's unwillingness to take ownership for some highly-charged accusations is a sign of a non-leader.

I cannot imagine Kerry even wanting to be President, where, as Harry Truman noticed, "the buck stops here." Instead, I picture a man who deep down would be happier if his campaign were to self-destruct. The only executive position that Kerry ever held was his Swift Boat command, which lasted all of four months. My impression is that he would hate having to be the one to make decisions, and that it would be torture for him to be President.


I am not a straddler, and I cannot vote for one. I will make my choice and live with it. I plan to vote for George Bush in November. But if you're undecided, I don't blame you.


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