Hope and Frustration

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

November 2, 2004

As I look back over the course of this campaign, I should confess I've gone through several periods convinced I should vote against President Bush. I know I'm not the only conservative to think this way. I look at my favorite conservative bloggers and see many coming out for John Kerry. I talk to my friends at conservative think tanks and magazines and notice that they are deeply ambivalent about the administration, even those who would never vote for a Democrat.

Like all these folks, I look at the Bush administration with a mixture of admiration, frustration and anger.

I'm frustrated that Bush didn't build the governing majority that was there for the taking. He came to power with good ideas on how to move the G.O.P. beyond the Gingrich stall. But time and again, he abandoned his reformist strategy to give spoils to the G.O.P. donor base.

To take one small example: on environmental policy, he showed interest in moving to a flexible, market-based system that would have cleaned the environment better than the current system. But too often rules were written to please key industries. Voters who could have been turned on by new, effective approaches were instead appalled at unseemly self-dealing.

I'm exasperated at the Bush communications strategy. His advisers came in with one rule: no concessions to elite opinion. They decided not to be open on how they make decisions. They would never admit mistakes. They would not fully engage with Washington or even with Republicans on Capitol Hill. In so doing, they pushed away many who could have helped them - most important, pro-war Democrats. They fed the misconception that this is an administration that does not deliberate. They further polarized the political climate, in ways that only make it more difficult to get anything done.

I'm angry at the decision not to send enough troops into Iraq. The history of the 1990's suggested that when societies are transformed, establishing law and order is the most important thing. Yet that lesson was ignored. People from the center to the right were screaming for more boots on the ground, but the administration never performed the elementary task of statecraft: matching the tools at your disposal to the goals you hope to pursue.

There are moments when I think, These are exactly the sorts of mistakes that administrations should be thrown out of office for.

Then other considerations come into play. The first is Kerry. He's been attacked for being a flip-flopper, but his core trait is that he is monumentally selfish. Since joining the Senate, he has never attached himself to an idea or movement larger than his own career advancement.

It's not for nothing that people in Massachusetts joked that his initials stand for Just For Kerry. Or that people spoke of him as the guy who refuses to wait in lines at restaurants because he thinks he's above everybody else. If the Democrats had nominated Dick Gephardt, this election wouldn't be close, but character is destiny, and Kerry's could be debilitating in the White House.

Second, for the next many years the madrassas will be churning out young men who want to kill us. In embarking on a generational challenge to transform the Middle East, Bush has a strategy to defeat their ideology. While many around him understand the challenge, Kerry has no strategy.

I fear his foreign policy would combine Carteresque pedantry with the cruel "realism" of the first Bush administration. Under the elder Bush, the realists paid lip service to democracy, but inevitably stood by whoever was in power at the moment: for Gorbachev and against the freedom-loving Lithuanians, for the Russian empire and against the independence-seeking Ukrainians.

That passive approach was tolerable in the face of a dying Soviet Union. It is not in the face of radical Islam.

Third, Kerry's Democrats seem to have no interest in reforming the entitlement programs that are asphyxiating government. Kerry merely promises to expand the status quo, thus punting on the central domestic challenge of our time.

I'm not allowed to tell you how I'm going to resolve these contradictory impulses (Times policy). But if Kerry wins, I hope he'll pick three things he wants to do - for the country, not himself - and stick with them. And if Bush is re-elected, I hope he will see his win not as vindication, but as a second chance to act effectively on the visions that inspired hope in the first place.