one phrase Dick Gephardt has defined the issue
to be decided next November. Can a "miserable
failure" of a president win re-election? Bush's
victory would testify to a civic failure more
dangerous to the American future than any policies
implemented or continued during a second Bush
term. A majority would have demonstrated that
democratic accountability is finished. That you
can fail in everything and still be re-elected
can preside over the most catastrophic failure
of intelligence and national defense in history.
Can fire no one associated with this fatal chain
of blunders and bureaucratic buck-passing. Can
oppose an inquest into September 11 for more than
a year until pressure from the relatives of those
killed on that day becomes politically toxic.
Can name Henry Kissinger, that mortician of truth,
to head the independent commission you finally
accede to. You can start an unnecessary war that
kills hundreds of Americans and as many as 7,000
Iraqi civilians-adjusted for the difference in
population, the equivalent of 80,000 Americans.
Can occupy Iraq without a plan to restore traffic
lights, much less order. Can make American soldiers
targets in a war of attrition conducted by snipers,
assassins, and planters of remote-control bombs-and
taunt the murderers of our young men to "bring
it on." Can spend hundreds of billions of dollars
on nation building-and pass the bill to America's
children. (Asked to consider rescinding your tax
cut for the top one percent of taxpayers for one
year in order to fund the $87 billion you requested
from Congress to pay for the occupation of Iraq,
your Vice President said no; that would slow growth.)
You can lose more jobs than any other President
since Hoover. You can cut cops and after-school
programs and Pell Grants and housing allowances
for the poor to give tax cuts to millionaires.
You can wreck the nation's finances, running up
the largest deficit in history. You can permit
17,000 power plants to increase their health-endangering
pollution of the air. You can lower the prestige
of the United States in every country of the world
by your unilateral conduct of foreign policy and
puerile "you're either with us or against us"
rhetoric. Above all, you can lie the country into
war and your lies can be exposed-and, if a majority
prefers ignorance to civic responsibility, you
can still be reelected.
Republicans must be capable of applying a cost-benefit
analysis to this record of miserable failure.
Their tax cuts on one side, the burden of Bush-begotten
debt on their children on the other. And surely
even Republicans breathe the air befouled by those
power plants. I have it on good authority that
the conservatives in the party do as well. Surely
they must question the judgment of a President
who proposes to turn Iraq into what James Fallows
calls "the fifty-first state" in order to bring
democracy to the Middle East-the kind of do-gooder
fantasy conservatives have long ridiculed in liberals.
the election won't be decided by Republicans and
conservatives. Most will sacrifice independent
judgment to ideology or party and vote for Bush.
No, swing voters will pick the next President.
They vote the man not the party, character not
ideology. Many voted for Bush in 2000 because
they liked him better than Al Gore-applying the
standards of product acceptability to a job that
entrusts its holder with the power to blow up
the planet. Well, do they still "like" Bush? I
fear many do. After all, he has spared them the
embarrassment of having to discuss sex with their
children. Swing voters like Bush's "image" as
a strong leader, a CNN pundit claims. Are they
incapable of looking behind that image and seeing
the weak President who stayed away from the White
House on September 11 because his Vice President
said it was not safe for him to be there and whose
PR people lied to cover up his failure of leadership?
John F. Kennedy, as R. W. Apple wrote on the front
page of The New York Times on September 12, remained
in the White House throughout the Cuban missile
crisis knowing that it would be hit in any nuclear
exchange with the Soviet Union.
Founders feared that the republic would succumb
to corruption without republican citizenship-without
citizens who could transcend privatism and hold
elected officials to account, demanding probity
and competence, and judging their performance
against both the clamorous necessities of the
time and the mute claims of posterity. They made
property a criterion for voting because it secured
a measure of economic independence. Property-less
wage laborers, they feared, would vote as their
employers instructed them to. The extension of
democracy to those who could not rise to the responsibilities
of republican freedom would corrupt the republic-hasten
its decay into oligarchy or mob rule.
all their worldliness the Founders were naïve
to regard property as a shield of incorruptibility
or the property-less as inherently corruptible.
Their core insight, however, remains valid. A
republic can be corrupted at the top and bottom,
by leaders and led. The re-election of George
W. Bush would signal that a kind of corruption
had set in among the led. Our miserable failure
as republican citizens would match his as President.
Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly
and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation
Changed America, which was named one of the top
ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous
books are The World According to Peter Drucker
(1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times
of James Michael Curley (1992)
© 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights
Posted: January 23, 2004