In the first 90-minute presidential debate the Democratic candidate John Kerry was intellectually and academically far superior to his incumbent Republican opponent George W Bush. Yet a nation still caught in the post 9/11 insecurity phobia on the one hand, the ‘war-on-terror’ psychosis and the fall out of its invasion of Iraq, may find Kerry a ‘soft leader’ the US cannot afford for now. Bush even with his floundering and erring during the first debate is the man the majority are likely to feel ‘safe’ with.
For the average American he is a ‘tough and a God-fearing guy’ America now needs. Perpetually experiencing the yellow, orange and red security alerts the Americans may opt for the comfort of ‘the known’ and ‘the experienced.’ On home front the theme of Bush’s illegal, high cost and disastrous invasion of Iraq seldom finds space in the mainstream media. Until now Iraq is another dimension to the war on terrorism; a necessity to avoid repeat of the horrors of 9/11.
Kerry in his first debate was bold and brave. It was a walk over for Kerry. He in fact walked all over Bush intellectually! His criticism of the Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the ongoing problems in Afghanistan, the walking out of international treaties, of going after Saddam who had no WMDs, the undermining of the United Nations and turning the US war on terrorism somewhat into an anti-Islam war, would have won him many supporters overseas in Europe, in the parts of the Muslim world and even in the UN.
Within the USA it’s different. His opponent reminds Kerry that no matter what he says now he supported the war and considered Saddam an enemy worth going after. Americans are a nation in the middle of a ‘war election.’ In this election the many wars that the US has engaged itself in will be the ones that are dominating the American voters mind-set; the war in Iraq, the war against “terrorism”, war against al-Qaeda, war against ‘Islamic extremism’ and perhaps war against secularists forces within the US.
In this ‘war election Bush is forcing the debate in ‘black and white’ terms. He tells Kerry you agree with the war in which our sons are dying, you support it all the way, you cant both support and criticize it at the same time, no if and buts if you want to be 150% behind ‘our boys’ fighting in Iraq. And this sells among the public looking for ‘security.’ Kerry’s truth that Bush went into Iraq in a hurry at a high cost and violated the undertaking to the US public that he will go to the war as a last resort is unlikely to get him winning votes. Kerry’s observations are no in synch with the wider and the dominant public discourse in the US. That discourse still looks for the ‘enemy’ in the ‘other’ not ‘within.’
Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts must have greatly appealed to the folks in his home state. Kerry has been well tutored by the academic cum policy-maker Democrats at Harvard like former Joseph Nye in the multilateralist global security view which combine hard power with ‘soft power.’ Joseph Nye is amongst the key foreign policy thinkers in the Democratic Party. A professor at Harvard currently leading the Visions of Governance in the 21st Century Project Nye and with various stints in government including Deputy to the Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology, chairman of the National Security Council Group on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, chairman of the National Intelligence Council and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs 1994 and 1995, Nye is set for a top slot in a Kerry Administration.
Kerry would win the presidency hands down if it the vote only had to come from his home state. This is a state where the anti-Iraq war Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 broke all previous records of popular movies. But the presidential votes will have to be gotten from USA’s ‘Bible Belt’ extending from covers almost 15 southern and Midwestern states of the U.S, where incidentally Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ broke all previous records as a box office hit. Kerry, a voice of greater reason from among the two is unlikely to win in these states.
Its in the Bible Belt that the nexus between the need for greater security mixes with identifying the ‘enemy’ in the ‘other’, strong patriotism and religion all mix. The Bible Belt has always been the Republican stronghold and much more after what ghastly 9/11 experiences. Bush is a son of the Bible Belt.
Interesting one of the key domestic issues that divides that Democrats and the Republicans is the role of religion in State and politics. The ‘war on terrorism’ and 9/11 have strengthened the Republican view that the separation between religion and State should be reduced. Majority of Americans have always been church-going religious people. Until the nineties American religiosity had not undermined the consensus within the US on separation of State and religion. This has changed. Late 1999 during NBC’s GOP debate, as governor of Texas when George Bush was asked to name the "political philosopher or thinker you most identify with" Bush said "Christ, because he changed my heart-¦When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that’s what happened to me." Bush was cheered by the audience.
A Newsweek commentator Howard Fineman then wrote, “As the New Year approaches, faith is becoming an organizing principle of the first election of the third millennium. A quarter century ago, Jimmy Carter became the first major contender to put his faith front and center. After Watergate, the country was ready for a cleansing, and found it in a candidate who promised, "never to lie." Now, at the end of the Clinton years, the country seems ready for another revival.”
Fineman had also asked, “whether an appeal to religion will work as a moral cleaning agent.” Today the dominant and the decisive questions in the US debate all revolve around the issues of security and ‘anti-terrorism.’ In times of trouble, no matter even if its also largely of your own making, people turn to God. The Americans are no different. Increasingly the Republicans have led the mixing of State power with religion. For example In June some members of Congress seem determined to politicize houses of worship. It was known that a large tax bill being ‘fast-tracked’ through Congress contained provisions reducing the penalties for church politicking and inviting involvement in campaigns. Late July Supreme Court judge Thomson has on record been critical about the separation of State and religion.
The anti-Bush campaigners will find it hard to counter Bush both on wearing his ‘religion on his sleeve’ and in declaring that US power must be hammered around to be taken seriously. That subtlety doesn’t work against “terrorism.” That to protect America American power must go on the offensive; not in retreat and reflection. And so Bush’s talk sells better among the American ‘crowds’- ones looking for guaranteed security after 9/11.
Today the overlap between the US foreign policy and domestic policy is tremendous as is the impact of US foreign policy on domestic security. This is likely to work to Bush’s advantage. A people who have lost 1000 plus of its sons in its invasion of Iraq is generally not ready to be told the invasion is anything but a ‘just and moral war’ against Saddam and ‘Islamic extremists.’ Kerry is being bold, introspective and wise in his ‘read out’ on Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the ‘war on terrorism’ when the majority in the opinion-making community are not speaking the language of wisdom. It will take a ‘political miracle’ for Kerry to win.