The announcement that Ralph Nader will again run for the Presidency raises the (almost) unaskable question -are there any circumstances under which we should hope for, promote, or even passively assist, the re-election of George W. Bush as against either of the remaining Democrat contenders? I feel nervous even raising this question, but I think it’s worth a hard and dispassionate look.
Regardless of their political persuasion, most people will agree, at least in retrospect, that it would have been better for their own side (defined either in ideological or in party terms) to have lost some of the elections they won. Most obviously, this was the case for the US Republican Party in 1928. Hoover’s victory, and his inability to cope with the Depression, paved the way for four successive victories for FDR and two generations of Democratic and liberal hegemony, which didn’t finally come to an end until the Reagan revolution in 1980. The same was true on the other side of poltiics in Australia and the UK, where Labour governments were elected just before the Depression, split over measures of retrenchment demanded by the maxims of orthodox finance and sat out the 1930s in Opposition, watching their own former leaders implement the disastrous policies they had rejected, but had been unable to counter.
So, is 2004 one of those occasions? The case that it is rests primarily on arguments about fiscal policy. Bush’s policies have set the United States on a path to national bankruptcy, a fact that is likely to become apparent some time between now and 2008. Assuming that actual or effective bankruptcy (repudiation of debt or deliberate resort to inflation) is unthinkable, this is going to entail some painful decisions for the next President and Congress, almost certainly involving both increases in taxation and cuts in expenditure. On the expenditure side, this will mean a lot more than the obvious targets of corporate welfare and FDW. Either significant cuts in the big entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare) or deep cuts in everything else the government does will be needed, even with substantial increases in taxes (to see the nasty arithmetic read these CBO projections, and replace the baseline with the more realistic “Policy Alternatives Not Included in CBO’s Baseline”)
As far as I can see, the only way to avoid four years of grinding bargaining would be the Big Bang approach of repealing the Bush tax cuts en bloc while the electoral mandate was fresh. Gephardt and Dean proposed this (along with, I think, Kucinich, Braun and Sharpton), but Edwards and Kerry propose repealing only the cuts on incomes above $200 000 a year. Whichever of them wins the Democratic nomination, it seems likely that the pressures of the campaign will lead them to soft-pedal the bad news on tax and spending options, making it more difficult to push even partial repeal through a Congress that will probably have a Republican majority in at least one House.
Given that the deficit has yet to register as a major issue with many (most ?) voters, , it will be very hard to shift the blame back onto Bush and the Republicans if the problem is deferred until 2005 or 2006. It’s easy to imagine scenarios leading to an electoral catastrophe in 2008 and the election of a Republican even worse than Bush. Conversely, a re-elected Bush could be a second Herbert Hoover, discrediting the Republicans for decades to come.
Of course, similar arguments were made in 2000, notably on behalf of Nader, and they turned out to be totally wrong. More generally, the folk wisdom about birds in the hand and in the bush (sic) is applicable. And it’s always easier for an outside onlooker to advise taking the long-term view in cases of this kind, though in this case, we all have to live with the consequences.
Looking at the damage another four years of Bush would do in all areas of domestic and foreign policy, I can’t conclude that the putative long-term benefits of demonstrating the bankruptcy of his ideas are enough to balance the inevitable and immediate damage his re-election would cause. Still, I look forward to a Democratic victory with trepidation rather than the unalloyed enthusiasm I ought to feel.
fn1. Fraud, Duplication and Waste