Originally published on Oct. 19.
This is not a happy election season. Our nation is mortally threatened and deeply divided. We are divided not only by party affiliation, but by different visions of the nature of the threat and the means of defeating it. Each candidate embodies in his personality and public presentation these conflicting visions.
President George W. Bush sees the rise of global Islamist terrorism as an evil force and mortal threat, the causes of which must be extirpated, root and branch, in a global struggle. He believes that it is insufficient to merely track down the existing terrorists and contain the rogue states with capacity for weapons of mass destruction that may support them. Rather, he proposes (and he has begun to act upon the belief in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa, among other places) to transform -- by military means if necessary -- the sick societies of the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia that have given rise to the appeal of terrorism.
Sen. John F. Kerry, while recognizing the malignant nature of the terrorists, sees that threat, or at least the solution to it, as somewhat less thoroughgoing. He has argued that if inspections had been continued in Iraq and sanctions had been maintained, then regime change by military force would have been unnecessary.
Mr. Bush, implicitly, has seen the danger of further exacerbating Arab street passions (and thus increasing short-term recruitment potential for terrorists) as a price worth paying (if necessary) to move forward the larger project of democratic or other benign transformation. Mr. Kerry has specifically cited such exacerbations as a reason why the Iraq war was unwise.
Neither candidate's vision lies comfortably on the mind. The sheer vastness and duration of Mr. Bush's solution leaves one wishing that the danger did not require so overwhelming a response. Many conservatives, as well as other Americans, wonder whether the project is doable.
On the other hand, this newspaper, and probably a small majority of the country, believe that Mr. Kerry's more limited proposed response does not even offer a theoretical end to the terrorist threat. And, in an age when terrorists may likely come to possess WMD, unless the danger is crushed, terrorism can never return to the level of mere nuisance suggested by Mr. Kerry. Even an occasional WMD attack on the United States would be a catastrophe, not a nuisance.
Mr. Kerry's proposed solution seems to recapitulate Winston Churchill's description of the coming of the Second World War: "... the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous ... the counsels of prudence and self restraint [became] the prime agents of mortal danger ... the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life led direct to the bulls-eye of disaster."
As between Mr. Bush's possible overestimation of the scope of the solution and Mr. Kerry's clear underestimation of it, we believe that true prudence calls for the maximum effort proposed by Mr. Bush. On that basis alone, we support Mr. Bush in the current election.
But whatever lessons history has in store for the next president, we believe that Mr. Bush's character and personality are better suited to those challenges.
If he has demonstrated anything in his first term, it is that he will not shrink from making the hard, unpopular decisions if he judges them to be in the national interest. And, he has shown the determination -- yes, even the stubbornness -- to stick with those decisions when the pressure would be unbearable for most men.
We have the suspicion that in the next four years those virtues will be needed by the next president, especially in his dealings with North Korea and Iran. And Mr. Kerry, for all his estimable qualities, has convinced a majority of Americans during the past two years that he is unlikely to stubbornly stick with an unpopular position come hell or high water. This national judgment weighs heavily against his election --and ought to.
While most Americans are clearly and correctly going to pick the next president on the basis of who best can defend our national security, there are other substantial reasons for supporting Mr. Bush.
As a man of faith, he will continue to stoutly defend the right to life and the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman -- both in his legislative and appointive responsibilities.
As a strict constitutionalist, he will defend the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and will appoint judges who will not legislate from the bench.
The growing menace of tort-litigation abuse, on which Mr. Bush has proposed practical restraints, will of course, never be dealt with by the Kerry-Edwards team -- who are thick as thieves with the malfactoring trial lawyers.
The president's record is not, however, unblemished from a conservative point of view. On the issue second in importance only to the terrorism threat -- securing our borders and reversing illegal immigration -- the president has not only failed, but is actually moving in the wrong direction.
Similarly, he has shown little willingness to fight for less spending on nonmilitary, non-homeland security programs.
Fortunately for the president, Mr. Kerry is even worse on both of those issues. Mr. Kerry would increase domestic spending even faster, with tax increases promised for such deficit restraint as he might gain. He thus violates the first principle of deficit reduction -- it must be done by lowering spending, not increasing taxes.
And on tax-cutting, the president receives the highest marks. We delighted in his stubborn refusal to reduce his tax-cut proposals, which tax cuts have now yielded approximately 2 million new jobs in the last year -- as well as the natural justice that derives from letting all Americans keep more of the fruit of their labor.
Like even the most successful presidencies, the first Bush term has been flawed in many of its details. Only former presidents and their top staff can fully understand how daunting is the challenge to leverage the problems of the world on the modest fulcrum of the White House powers. No president has the power or the wisdom to perform flawlessly.
What we can expect and must demand of our presidents is a clear vision and a firm hand on the tiller from the bridge of the ship of state. And one other thing: The moral uprightness to deserve the responsibilities with which we would vest him.
President Bush has those virtues, and has performed those duties heroically through desperate years. He deserves, and the nation would be well served by, his re-election to those duties.