Published: October 29 2004
For the most part, modern elections are narrow arguments about politics and policies - about whether a nation will swing two or three degrees left or right from the prevailing consensus. The effects are felt at the margin: the rich get a bit richer or, perhaps, the poor feel a little less oppressed. Then, once in a while, voters have a chance to look in the mirror and make a profound choice about a nation's character and values. Such is the contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry. One way or another next Tuesday's poll will answer the most compelling question of our times: what sort of country does America want to be?
I have heard many people say otherwise. Self-styled political realists have converged on the notion that there is nothing much to choose between the Republican president and his Democratic challenger. America will wake up on Wednesday to much the same problems. Al-Qaeda will not be any kinder to Mr Kerry than to Mr Bush. Stripped of campaign rhetoric, the competing candidates have similar answers. The differences are of tone and style more than substance. In any event, whoever wins will be hemmed in by awkward realities.
An American friend recently illustrated the case by drawing a line through the centre of a clean sheet of paper. On one side, he put Mr Bush's prescriptions for everything from Iraq and Middle East peace to job creation, tax cuts and social security; on the other, Mr Kerry's alternatives. You could spot the contrasts but, viewed like this, the election could indeed be characterised as politics as usual.
Fatalists in Europe tend to make much the same point. Mr Kerry would be as tough on Iran as Mr Bush; Democrats are as determined as Republicans that North Korea should give up nuclear weapons. As for the fight against Islamist terrorists, there are no easy answers anyway.
These two-dimensional exercises miss the point. A nation's sense of itself at home and the way it conducts itself abroad are more important than specific policy choices. This presidential election is about values rather than issues, about America's state of mind more than the best way to salvage the healthcare system.
Does the country now belong to the cultural conservatives who shape Mr Bush's domestic agenda and to the “might-is-right” adventurers who set his administration's foreign policy? Or will the past two or three years turn out to have been an interlude, a violent spasm in reaction to the trauma of September 11 2001? Can Mr Kerry, in other words, restore the Democratic ideals of opportunity and community at home and co-operative leadership abroad as the values that best describe America to itself and to the rest of the world?
Mr Bush's record testifies eloquently to the significance of the outcome. The one thing on which friends and opponents of the president can agree is that his response to the terrorist outrages of 9/11 has transformed America's standing in the world. Supporters would say that the sole superpower has shown itself steadfast in adversity and unflinching in the pursuit of its enemies. Almost everyone else would respond that Mr Bush's war in Iraq has lost the US the affection of many of its friends, shattered vital alliances and, in the long term, set back the fight against Islamist terrorism.
Either way, there has been a big change. So I am puzzled when the same European politicians who blame Mr Bush's reckless use of power for fracturing the transatlantic alliance and alienating the Muslim world assert in the next breath that a victory for Mr Kerry would not really change much.
Sure, some things will undoubtedly endure whoever emerges the victor next week. The parameters of the old cold war alliance had changed decisively long before September 11 2001. The curious mix of invincibility and vulnerability that has defined American power since the destruction of New York's twin towers all but guarantees an assertive US role on the world stage. That will continue to make life uncomfortable for some of its allies in Europe. Yet there is still a gulf between a president who exults in a hegemony built on military supremacy and a candidate proposing co-operative international leadership.
Mr Bush's domestic agenda also promotes fear as his most reliable ally. Those sections of his campaign speeches that are not about the righteous use of force against threats abroad focus on the enemy within. The president describes himself by the things he is against: abortion, gun control, stem-cell research, gay marriage. The economy, healthcare and the rest merit only glancing mentions. As far as substantive initiatives go, his second-term prospectus is threadbare. Instead, Mr Bush wants America to embrace the Christian fundamentalism that has shaped his presidency.
Just as Mr Kerry has put the case for reason against needless unilateralism in foreign policy, so he has sought to persuade the voters that America's character is rooted in a different set of ideals at home - tolerance, fairness, and community. Mr Bush talks about gays; Mr Kerry about middle-class opportunity. Mr Bush wants to use government to limit the private choices of citizens; his opponent sees the state as the ally of individual advancement.
It is this struggle about values, as intensely emotional as it is political, that explains the passion and the bitterness of the campaign. Both men seem to realise there is far more at stake than who gets to live in the White House for the next four years. The question the voters are being asked is whether Mr Bush has built a new national majority around hard-line social conservatism; or whether Mr Kerry can restore the centrist consensus of the 1990s.
A few days before election day the polls show that Americans are still divided, pulled by fear towards Mr Bush's conviction and by generosity of spirit towards Mr Kerry's values. But amid the avalanche of polling data from every district and state in the Union, two messages stand out. The first is that a majority of Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction; the second that only a minority believe Mr Bush actually deserves a second term.
My guess is that, when they come to look in the mirror next Tuesday, most Americans will prefer light over darkness - tough-minded realism abroad and tolerance at home over faith-based fundamentalism. I think Mr Kerry will win - comfortably. But, yes, hope mingles with expectation.