October 28, 2004

THE FINAL NAIL IN THE COFFIN? The prestigious endorsement of The Economist has gone to . . . [insert drumroll here] . . . . John Kerry. But it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Like those two previous challengers, Mr Kerry has shaped many of his positions to contrast himself with the incumbent. That is par for the course. What is more disconcerting, however, is the way those positions have oscillated, even as the facts behind them have stayed the same. In the American system, given Congress’s substantial role, presidents should primarily be chosen for their character, their qualities of leadership, for how they might be expected to deal with the crises that may confront them, abroad or at home. Oscillation, even during an election campaign, is a worrying sign.

If the test is a domestic one, especially an economic crisis, Mr Kerry looks acceptable, however. His record and instincts are as a fiscal conservative, suggesting that he would rightly see future federal budget deficits as a threat. His circle of advisers includes the admirable Robert Rubin, formerly Mr Clinton’s treasury secretary. His only big spending plan, on health care, would probably be killed by a Republican Congress. On trade, his position is more debatable: while an avowed free trader with a voting record in the Senate to confirm it, he has flirted with attacks on outsourcing this year and chosen a rank protectionist as his running-mate. He has not yet shown Mr Clinton’s talent for advocacy on this issue, or any willingness to confront his rather protectionist party. Still, on social policy, Mr Kerry has a clear advantage: unlike Mr Bush he is not in hock to the Christian right. That will make him a more tolerant, less divisive figure on issues such as abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research.

The biggest questions, though, must be about foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. That is where his oscillations are most unsettling. A war that he voted to authorise, and earlier this year claimed to support, he now describes as “a mistake”. On some occasions he claims to have been profoundly changed by September 11th and to be determined to seek out and destroy terrorists wherever they are hiding, and on others he has seemed to hark back to the old Clintonian view of terrorism as chiefly a question of law and order. He has failed to offer any set of overall objectives for American foreign policy, though perhaps he could hardly oppose Mr Bush’s targets of democracy, human rights and liberty. But instead he has merely offered a different process: deeper thought, more consultation with allies.

They go for Kerry for precisely the reason I’m thinking of doing so:

Many readers, feeling that Mr Bush has the right vision in foreign policy even if he has made many mistakes, will conclude that the safest option is to leave him in office to finish the job he has started. If Mr Bush is re-elected, and uses a new team and a new approach to achieve that goal, and shakes off his fealty to an extreme minority, the religious right, then The Economist will wish him well. But our confidence in him has been shattered. We agree that his broad vision is the right one but we doubt whether Mr Bush is able to change or has sufficient credibility to succeed, especially in the Islamic world. Iraq’s fledgling democracy, if it gets the chance to be born at all, will need support from its neighbours – or at least non-interference – if it is to survive. So will other efforts in the Middle East, particularly concerning Israel and Iran.

John Kerry says the war was a mistake, which is unfortunate if he is to be commander-in-chief of the soldiers charged with fighting it. But his plan for the next phase in Iraq is identical to Mr Bush’s, which speaks well of his judgment. He has been forthright about the need to win in Iraq, rather than simply to get out, and will stand a chance of making a fresh start in the Israel-Palestine conflict and (though with even greater difficulty) with Iran. After three necessarily tumultuous and transformative years, this is a time for consolidation, for discipline and for repairing America’s moral and practical authority. Furthermore, as Mr Bush has often said, there is a need in life for accountability. He has refused to impose it himself, and so voters should, in our view, impose it on him, given a viable alternative. John Kerry, for all the doubts about him, would be in a better position to carry on with America’s great tasks.