BILL CLINTON WAS BACK on the campaign trail this week, a fine embodiment of the stakes in the 2004 election.
Still recovering from his open-heart surgery, the last Democratic president seemed a bit gaunt and not quite as boisterous as the shameless old rogue we got to know so well during the 1990s. But the familiar good humor was there, and so was the charisma and the engaging sunniness. A huge crowd turned out to see him in Philadelphia, where he rather cheerfully painted a picture of good times gone bad since the accession of George W. Bush. When he embraced John Kerry in a bear hug, the message could hardly have been clearer: Things were better under Clinton, and they can be better under Kerry. Return to the policies of the 1990s, and we'll all feel good again.
And there in a nutshell is the choice in this election: Forward with Bush into a difficult future, or backward with Kerry to the familiar ways of the past. It would be an easy decision, except for one thing: The familiar ways of the past led to Sept. 11.
Kerry is a liberal Democrat, but in this campaign he is running as a reactionary: as one who wants to reverse course, to go back to the attitudes and practices that guided US policy when Clinton and the elder George Bush were in office. The younger Bush may be a Republican, but he is running this year as a radical. Profoundly transformed by 9/11, he sees the old playbook as feckless and dangerous, and is determined to set a revolutionary new course.
Kerry's words confirm his Sept. 10 mindset. Asked by The New York Times this month how 9/11 changed him, he replied: "It didn't change me much at all." On CNN in July he said, "What American would not trade [for] the economy we had in the 1990s, the fact that we were not at war and young Americans were not deployed?"
But of course we were at war during the Clinton and Bush I years, and we repeatedly came under attack -- at the World Trade Center, at the Kenya and Tanzania embassies, at the Khobar Towers barracks, at the port where the USS Cole was docked. We were at war, but only the enemy was fighting.
Bush II looks back on the 1990s as a period of tragic complacency: "Most Americans still felt that terrorism was something distant, something that would not strike on a large scale in America," he said in New Jersey last week. "That . . . attitude is what blinded America to the war being waged against us. And by not seeing the war, our government had no comprehensive strategy to fight it."
For Kerry and his entourage, however, all this war talk is overwrought. A key adviser, former ambassador Richard Holbrooke, impatiently dismisses the notion that America is in a real war with a real enemy bent on global domination. "The war on terror is like saying 'the war on poverty,'" he snorts. "It's just a metaphor."
Kerry himself, embracing the pre-9/11 view of fanatic Muslim violence, has repeatedly insisted that the conflict with the jihadis "is primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation," not a military struggle. "We have to get back to the place we were," he told the Times -- back to viewing terrorism the way we view prostitution and gambling: "a nuisance" that "we're never going to end . . . but we're going to reduce."
To Bush the radical, 9/11 shattered the illusion that the Islamofascist terror can be controlled with indictments and criminal lawyers. And it shattered as well the belief that terrorism could be beaten without draining the swamps in which it breeds: the dictatorships and theocracies of the Muslim Middle East. "Terrorists thrive on the support of tyrants and the resentments of oppressed peoples," Bush said last fall. "When tyrants fall, and resentment gives way to hope, men and women in every culture reject the ideologies of terror, and turn to the pursuits of peace."
From that insight springs Bush's campaign to democratize the Middle East, beginning with Afghanistan and Iraq, and his rejection of the old "realist" policy of tolerating oppressive regimes in the name of stability. "This approach brought little stability and much oppression," he has said, "so I have changed this policy."
And Kerry the reactionary would change it back. He argues that "the goal . . . is a stable Iraq, not whether or not there's a full democracy." He told The Washington Post that if elected, he would, in the Post's words, "play down the promotion of democracy as a leading goal." In a Kerry administration there will be no effort to modernize the Middle East with freedom and pluralism. Democracy? "You can't impose it on people," Kerry says.
Bush asserts the right to attack enemies preemptively; Kerry emphasizes diplomacy and deterrence. Bush sees the United Nations as obstructionist; Kerry accords it deference and great respect. Bush is prepared to act unilaterally when US interests require it; Kerry cites the "global test" that any American action must meet. In this first presidential election since the Twin Towers fell, Americans have a momentous choice: the reactionary "realism" of a man who says 9/11 didn't change him, or the radical urgency of a man who says 9/11 changed everything.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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