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What If Kerry Loses?

By winning in 2004, might Democrats jeopardize an opportunity to dominate U.S. politics for the next generation?

October 29, 2004

By winning in 2004, might Democrats jeopardize an opportunity to dominate U.S. politics for the next generation?

In retrospect, all those energized liberals who were heartened by President Bush's apparent inability to open up a strong lead against John Kerry resorted to a convenient rationalization of their candidate’s failure.

Just imagine what would have happened, they will say, if John Kerry had indeed managed to defeat George W. Bush in November 2004.

Mr. Kerry would have had his plate full. For starters, there was plenty of unfinished business in Iraq, where the violence became ever more pronounced.

President Kerry would have tried to mend fences with the allies. But he could not really have counted on Germany, France or others that were hesitant to put their soldiers — or their treasury, for that matter — in harm's way.

The new president also would not have had an easy time finding a viable exit strategy that would have ensured Iraq’s stability and satisfied a restless U.S. electorate.

The minute President Kerry would have set up shop, the neoconservative architects of the Bush Administration's preemption and Greater Middle East strategies would have moved to various conservative think tanks and academic institutions.

From there, they would have offered sharp criticisms of Mr. Kerry's foreign policy, blaming him for any problems that arose — and generally labeled him as weakening American power.

There would also have been much talk from conservatives arguing that — had it not been for the wrong message sent by a Democrat's arrival in the Oval Office — Iraq and the rest of the Middle East would be well on their way to Jeffersonian democracy and economic prosperity.

In addition to the security dimension, all those Democrats who never thought they could get over a Kerry loss took solace in the face of big troubles brewing on the economic front as well.

The economic recovery that got underway in the United States in 2003 had been bought with massive tax cuts, a huge boost in government spending and record-low interest rates — an unsustainable package.

If he had been elected, Mr. Kerry would have had to look at a federal budget deficit of well over $400 billion.

The dollar came under ever more pressure under the weight of a $600 billion-plus current account deficit. This meant that bond yields went up, adding significantly to the burden of financing the federal debt that had swollen during the first Bush Presidency.

And even if interest rates had risen only slowly, the sustained high price of oil led to a recession by the second quarter of 2005. Coming just a couple of months after a President Kerry would have taken office, that would not have been an appealing prospect.

But even if a President Kerry had received a strong popular mandate, Democrats would have been foolish to expect the Republicans to accept defeat gracefully.

The Republicans certainly would have put up a spirited opposition in Congress. For example, any attempt to roll back even part of Mr. Bush's tax cuts, as Mr. Kerry had advocated to pay for his healthcare plan, would have been doomed to failure.

Furthermore, the GOP would have claimed that it set the economy right with its tax cuts. Only the arrival of a liberal Democratic president kept a new era of universal prosperity from commencing, the Republicans would have argued cleverly.

The Democrats also realized that the highly disciplined and ideological GOP majority in the House of Representatives would have made life exceedingly difficult for a Kerry Administration.

In general, Republicans would have had plenty of ammunition. With the kind of loaded and troublesome agenda the Bush team piled up during its first term, it was quite evident that Mr. Bush’s successor would be a one-term president — unable to get his hands around the massive troubles.

Even more so, the massive clean-up job that Mr. Kerry would have had to do — including finding a workable exit strategy from Iraq and restoring a sound fiscal policy — would have been messy and highly unpopular with the U.S. electorate.

All of which is why it was not be the end of the world — Democrats convinced themselves — that Mr. Bush won the White House for a second term.

So the Democrats convinced themselves soon into Mr. Bush’s second term that there was hope. The hopeful scenario for Democrats was based on the negative longer-term consequences of Mr. Bush's various policies — long hidden behind fears of terrorism — that became obvious to voters.

Desperately trying to unravel all the massive problems the Republicans themselves had created finally triggered a realization in the electorate.

The end result of it was that the Republicans have been discredited for years to come — even in the eyes of those voters who had opted in favor of President Bush on November 2, 2004.

As it turned out, Democrats became convinced that it had not been such a bad idea after all that President Bush and the GOP had asked Americans for four more years to finish what they started in 2000.

But by the time of the 2008 presidential elections, voters had concluded that they had been sold a bill of goods. To make the best of a bad situation for Democrats, U.S. voters grew so sick of the GOP that they ushered in a Democratic Renaissance not only in the White House, but also in the U.S. Senate — and even in the House of Representatives.

Of course, Democrats were also pained by some key consequences Mr. Bush's reelection had on issues they hold dear. Predictably, Mr. Bush stacked the judiciary — and especially the Supreme Court — with young conservative judges who may exert influence for 40 years or more.

He also added to the pressures on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, as well as further hollowing out environmental protections and workers' rights.

Nevertheless, Democrats who had feared that there was no life worth living after Mr. Bush won on November 2, 2004, found out that they were wrong. All they had to do on the road to a political realignment in the country was to bite the bullet — and endure President Bush for four more years.

At the end of his second term, the Republican President had so disillusioned one of his key voting blocks, high school graduates, that they stopped believing in the Republican mantra — and gave priority to looking after their economic self-interest instead of focusing on secondary issues, such as guns or gay rights.