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August 28, 2004
Niall Ferguson Misses The Point

Usually, features well-written commentary from people serious about politics and the impact it has on the US. Once in a while, they toss in a piece that one suspects targets its readers just to gauge their reaction time. Saturday's edition appears to be more of the latter, as Niall Ferguson tries to argue that a Bush loss in November would actually benefit the GOP:

It is doubtless not the most tactful question to ask on the eve of the Republican convention, but might it not be better for American conservatism if George W. Bush failed to win a second term?

Yes, I know, the official GOP line is that nothing could possibly be as bad for the U.S. as a Kerry presidency. According to the Bush campaign, John Kerry's record of vacillation and inconsistency in the Senate would make him a disastrously indecisive POTUS--an IMPOTUS, as it were. By contrast, they insist, Mr. Bush is decisiveness incarnate. And when this president makes a decision, he sticks to it with Texan tenacity (no matter how wrong it turns out to be). ...

To be sure, there are many tendencies in American political life that will not be fundamentally affected by the outcome of November's election. For example, contrary to what Mr. Kerry claimed in his convention speech, there are profound structural causes for the widening rift between the U.S. and its erstwhile allies on the European Continent that no new president could possibly counteract. And regardless of whether Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry is in the White House next year, the U.S. will still be stuck with the dirty work of policing post-Saddam Iraq with minimal European assistance other than from Britain--which, by the same token, will remain America's most reliable military ally regardless of whether Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry is in the White House.

Nor would the election of Mr. Kerry have the slightest impact on the ambition of al Qaeda to inflict harm on the U.S. Even if Americans elected Michael Moore as president, Osama bin Laden would remain implacable.

This passage at the beginning of the article signals to experienced WSJ readers that we will experience an unserious discussion with a seriously unserious writer. Of course it doesn't make a difference to Osama who gets elected, in terms of his ambition. It makes a great deal of difference, however, in terms of his success. Does Ferguson not understand the difference? It hearkens back to the liberal whine of "Why do they hate us?" as being the single most important issue in facing terrorism, instead of "Where are they so we can kill them first?"

So the first fundamental problem with Ferguson's piece is that he can't distinguish between "ambition" and its successful implementation. That basically flows from a cynical and childish view of politics in general, where the point of running a campaign now isn't to win now. Apparently the point is winning later, and the consequences be damned.

In his European example, he correctly deduces that the US-EU rift has little to do with personalities and everything to do with competing interests. He suggests that we elect the stiff who doesn't understand that instead of the incumbent that already does, so we can hold the stiff to one term. However, did it occur to Ferguson that the stiff might make a lot of foreign-policy and security decisions in error before having the scales finally fall from his eyes? Four years in a war is one hell of a long time to wait for a grown-up to return to the Oval Office, and while it might result in a stronger GOP, it likely would also result in a lot of dead Americans.

Ferguson tries to use 1990s Britain as an example of the damage re-electing a weak executive can do to a party, but Ferguson leaves out several key issues that don't match up at all to the British example:

1. We are at war. Britain was not.
2. Britain's Parliamentary system creates pressure to form a moderate executive with legislators from more than one party, which gives both parties some input into the way the executive develops policy. The American system is winner-take-all.
3. In the next term, the President can reasonably expect to name at least two and possibly four Supreme Court nominees as current Justices retire. That opportunity comes once in a generation.

But Ferguson's entire approach bothers me. He treats the election as if it were an end in itself, a shallow and valueless approach to politics that debases and devalues the honest tension between governing philosophies. Quite frankly, I don't vote or not vote for a candidate because of some Machiavellian calculation that a loss here means a big landslide in 2016 for Tim Pawlenty. I vote for candidates who represent my values and philosophy for leadership, and I always want them to win now. Otherwise, I wind up with leadership that passes laws and regulations that I don't want.

In short, I vote to be governed the way I see fit, and it matters a great deal to me when I don't get it. What I deduce from Ferguson's article is that he thinks it doesn't matter much who wins or loses except for the won-loss column itself. If that's true, then why bother playing the game at all?

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 28, 2004 12:06 AM

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