NEW YORK--Are you better off now than you were four years ago? That's the classic pollster's question, but what voters say in response doesn't really determine who wins the presidency. Of course we consider our personal fortunes when we go to vote. We also play casting director: which guy looks most like Martin Sheen? But the big question this November, as in every presidential race, is this:
Which candidate offers the most likely prospects for a better future?
We Americans are optimists, and why not? Aside from such temporary setbacks as a civil war here and a great depression there, our nation's history has largely been one of improved personal living standards, expanding rights and, on a macro level, increasing economic and military power. Things not only always get better, they're supposed to keep getting better forever. If you stop to think about it, this can't keep up. Old Europe is full of countries whose citizens felt similarly entitled to continuous improvement; World War II and the end of colonialism ended all that. They've peaked out and so shall we, but Americans never stop striving long enough to think about much of anything.
Consider the winners in recent presidential elections: Reagan, Big Bush, Clinton, Gore. All were men who told the voters that their lives could and would get better. The candidates who lost to them, on the other hand, offered the dismal prospect of diminished expectations. Jimmy "National Malaise" Carter brought back draft registration, denied us a team to cheer for at the 1980 Olympics and presided over an Iranian hostage crisis that looked like it would last forever. In 1984 Mondale told us that he'd have to hike our taxes to pay for the first term of Reaganomics. Bush lost in 1992, not due to the recession but because his wait-and-see prescription offered no realistic hope of a quick turnaround. Bob Dole wouldn't stop talking about how the Nazis messed up his arm in the Po Valley.
Americans hate a downer.
Little Bush's strategists have learned many of the lessons of Big Bush's 1992 loss: don't look out of touch, pretend to care about the problems of the common man, don't talk like a girlie man. Yet they've neglected to offer Americans a ray of hope. "I don't think you can win [the war on terrorism]" Bush told NBC's Today Show on August 30. On September 7, Administration hatchet man Dick Cheney warned that "we'll get hit again and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States." From Tom Ridge's perpetual terror alerts to John Ashcroft's parade of arrests of supposed plotters to Donald Rumsfeld's giddy glee at scenes of carnage in the Middle East, the Bush White House bangs out negativity like it's going out of season.
Even Bush's attempts to talk up the economy project deliver a wallop to that sick feeling that grows in people's stomachs whenever he appears on the tube. "People have got more money in their pockets because of the tax relief," he says sunnily. "Our economy is stronger because people are keeping more of what they earn." Of course that's not true. For most taxpayers, corresponding hikes in state and local taxes have more than eclipsed the tiny federal cut received by the non-rich. And the Bush economy has yet to produce a single month with a net increase in new jobs. Everyone knows there aren't any good jobs out there. If Bush is that clueless, the economy is hopeless.
Under normal circumstances John Kerry ought to be headed to a cakewalk. So why are his polls slipping?
As grim and somber as the incumbent's team surely is, his Democratic challenger seems almost preternaturally unable to articulate a hopeful vision for the future. Cursed by a moaning speaking style and a droopy basset hound-like mug, anything Kerry says is bound to come off as depressing. Most damning, however, is the guy's stubborn refusal to promise to make things better.
Where a defter candidate (Howard Dean) might have marked the 1,000th death of a U.S. soldier in Iraq with a promise to stop the bloodshed as soon as he takes office, Kerry says the war will continue under his presidency. His healthcare proposal--which, with a probably Republican Congress, wouldn't pass anyway--isn't designed help most of the voters whose support he needs. His pledge to roll back only part of the Bush tax cuts won't leave nearly enough money to restore the unemployment benefits eliminated by Bush, much less expanding funding to education and other starving programs. Vote for me, Kerry is essentially arguing, and I'll kind of try to sort of repair the damage created since 2001. And I probably won't invade Iran. But forget anything big.
Kerry can't change his voice or his countenance. But if he is to have a chance of beating Bush, he must convince an electorate looking for any excuse to dump Bush that he'll deliver happier days posthaste. An end to Bush's perpetual state of war, a real healthcare plan and an ambitious program to reform primary and higher education would be a start. Without positive, big-ticket promises of a brighter four years, Americans won't feel hopeful enough to vote for a change. Given a choice between Kerry's Sad Sack act and Bush's maniacal dictator routine, people will pick the more entertaining--though dangerous--choice.
Ted Rall is the author of two new books, Wake Up, You're Liberal!: How We Can Take America Back From the Right and Generalissimo El Busho: Essays and Cartoons on the Bush Years. Ordering information is available at amazon.com.
Copyright 2004 Ted Rall
Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate/Ted Rall
Ted Rall online: www.rall.com