To paraphrase Walt Whitman, a U.S. election contains multitudes. The long, drawn-out campaign the primary season, the spring offensives, the summer punctuated by the scripted drama of the party conventions, the mad dash from Labor Day to the finish line, the debates, the breathless and sometimes inaccurate projections of state-by-state results by TV anchors add up to a political carnival in which, like a Brueghel painting, there are enough details to satisfy any taste. All elections matter. The U.S. presidential election, because it chooses the leader of the nation whose policies have so much impact on the world, matters to everyone.
The U.S. enters the last stages of this year's campaign as a nation divided. Polls have consistently shown reprising the razor-close margin of 2000 that the electorate is pretty evenly split between those likely to support President George W. Bush, the Republican candidate, and Senator John Kerry, his Democratic opponent. And Kerry's dramatic choice of a running mate last week his primary rival John Edwards, a charismatic North Carolina senator who is widely regarded as a better campaigner than Kerry isn't likely to change that. Bush has polarized the U.S. into camps of those who love the President who believe that, since Sept. 11, 2001, he has shown steadfast leadership at a time of great peril and those who hate him who believe that his Administration has been dangerously mendacious and driven by ideology, and who regard the war in Iraq as a diversion from more pressing targets in the struggle against terrorism. President Bush is a man who sees the world in black and white, and who is seen back by it in the same way. The extraordinary success of Michael Moore's polemical film, Fahrenheit 9/11 is testimony to the extent to which some Americans just do not believe anything the Administration says. Yet for a President who has led the U.S. into a controversial war that has so far cost 877 American lives, Bush remains popular among significant segments of the electorate. His sense of right and wrong, his determination that the U.S. must take the fight to its enemies, all resonate with Americans who place a premium on the defense of their nation's vital interests.
Iraq the choice to go to war there and the way the country's reconstruction has been handled will be a key issue in the election. In one sense, this is not surprising. Iraq has been more difficult and more bloody than anyone in the Administration led the American people to expect. The revelation of abuses of Iraqi prisoners displayed an ugliness to the war that shook even those who supported it. Yet in the grand sweep of history, it is rare for an issue of foreign policy to dominate a presidential campaign. American elections tend to be fought on matters of domestic policy the economy, stupid and candidates have generally acceded to the old adage that politics stops at the water's edge. At least as regards Iraq, this year is different.
Across the water, there's no doubt that most Europeans are rooting for Kerry. "Mr. Kerry knows other parts of the world," says Brice Lalonde, a former French Environment Minister who is Kerry's cousin. "Bush does not care if people like or don't like America. Mr. Kerry's worldview is wider." Maybe so. But is Europe's view of Kerry an overeager fiction? What would President Kerry really mean for Europe? Richard Holbrooke, President Clinton's ambassador to the U.N. and an informal Kerry adviser, says Kerry "would make rebuilding our alliances with Europe his first priority." So the tone could only improve but what about substance? During the primaries, Kerry tacked away from some long-held free trade positions, but once he had won the nomination, he reverted to internationalism. (It will be interesting to see if Edwards' presence on the ticket leads to more tough talk on trade and an appeal which failed for Al Gore in 2000 to old-fashioned populism.) But as one former U.S. diplomat warns, if Kerry wins "the U.S. won't sign Kyoto, the land-mine treaty, join the International Criminal Court, or double its foreign-aid budget. I'm not belittling style, but the change will be more style than substance." Europeans hope that's off the mark, and that when the votes are counted, the U.S. will again convince the world that America's limitless energy will be a force used for the good of all.