This period between the major political party conventions is a good time to think through what's at stake in this year's presidential election. Leaders of voter registration drives on both sides speak of a "pivotal election? -- is that hype or truth?
My immediate reaction is skepticism. Almost every presidential election has seemed pivotal to the contending forces, but look at two of the hardest-fought and closest: Was the American trajectory radically affected when Grover Cleveland lost to Benjamin Harrison in 1888? Was the 1892 rematch between the two equally pivotal?
The same could be said regarding about almost any election prior to 1980, with the exception of the Civil War-precipitating clash of 1860 and possibly McKinley vs. Bryan in 1896 and again in 1900. Was Van Buren's loss to Tippecanoe (and Tyler, too) in 1840 pivotal? How about Coolidge vs. Davis in 1924?
In recent years, though, the major political parties have become more ideological, and the bipartisan Cold War willingness to stand up to anti-American dictators has disappeared. Look at the 1980 Carter-Reagan contest: Had President Reagan not stepped up the military and rhetorical pressure on Soviet leaders, the Berlin Wall might still be standing. Tens of millions in Eastern Europe might still be enslaved. Hundreds of millions might still fear nuclear annihilation.
I'll skip over the Bill Clinton years and note that the election of 2000 was another pivotal one: If Al Gore had received a few more hundred Floridian votes, he would have made some presidential noises in September 2001, but would most likely have continued for four more years hemming and hawing over terrorism and the dictatorships that support it.
That brings us to the presidential election this fall, which I reluctantly conclude is also pivotal because two decidedly different views of America's role in the world confront us. A President John Kerry could talk a good game, but does he understand that there is evil in the world and that we must stand up against it? Or does he think that those who hate America, as well as the Christian principles on which our country is based, can be massaged into politeness?
Even if Kerry were suddenly to show vision rather than equivocation, the pressures on the Democratic side toward accommodation and appeasement are great. A stubborn Andrew Jackson or Harry Truman could resist such pressures, but those hoping to curry favor with the French cannot. One new reference work, "The Book of Rule," begins its discussion of "how we are governed? with an opening spread on the United Nations. That's what John Kerry is likely to make first in war, although not in the hearts of his countrymen.
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