Only one candidate is telling the truth
By Janet Daley
I have a great reverence for language. Like most people who earn their
living by manipulating words, I am inclined to favour the side of any
dispute that has the most elegant arguments. But in America over the
past weeks, watching the final stages of the presidential slug-a-thon,
I had to re-order my priorities.
Sitting through the final debate and the endless stump speeches in the
"battleground states", it was overwhelmingly clear that George W Bush
was inarticulate and right, and that John Kerry was articulate and
wrong. Strictly speaking, Kerry is fluent rather than articulate - a
good deal of what he says is so self-contradictory as to be
technically meaningless, and the rest is incapable of substantiation.
But he talks without pauses or hesitation, his sentences are more or
less grammatical, and they seem on superficial hearing to follow on
from one another in some sort of order. And that - for the Bush-haters
- is pretty much enough to make his candidacy pass for the Second Coming.
While I was there, his running mate, John Edwards, actually did claim
that Christopher Reeve would have got out of his wheelchair and walked
if Kerry had been in the White House, as a sort of retrospective
benediction from the Kerry policy on stem cell research. As I left,
the Kerry camp's case was becoming wilder and more unscrupulous.
They had begun by claiming that he personally could have got - and
could still get - the co-operation of "our European allies" (that is,
the on-and-off allies, France and Germany, rather than the reliable
one, Britain) on Iraq. Can he - or anybody - seriously believe that a
government as corrupt and self-serving as the present French one would
ever have been up for deposing Saddam, who was so very helpful to
French oil interests? Or that its "co-operation" now would amount to
anything other than a fishing expedition for useful business contacts
in any new regime?
Perhaps sensing that this line was not altogether credible, Kerry's
strategy had moved on to frightening pensioners (or "seniors", as
Americans call them) about their social security cheques. In an echo
of Labour's smear tactic in 1997 against Peter Lilley's pension reform
proposals, the Democrats were telling elderly voters that Bush planned
to "privatise" the federal pension and summarily stop their payments.
What the Bush Administration is actually toying with is allowing
people to put a proportion of their social security contribution into
an investment account to build up a funded pension: this is seen as
the only plausible way forward by virtually all progressive thinking
on the pensions crisis, and is certainly what the Democrats themselves
would have to adopt if they got into office.
Where Kerry is disingenuous and desperate, Bush is repetitive and
crass. But on substance, conviction and moral courage, the President
is way out in front. His message may be tailored for the good old boys
in the South or the Mid-West, but what he is saying is basically true.
America is engaged in a battle with forces as wicked as any we have
known: not the "nuisance" terrorism of the dismissive Kerry world
view, but a form of nihilism so dark and sinister that it is almost
impossible for Western democratic thinking to get its mind around it.
Those who prefer to see Islamist terror as a kind of analogue of the
Cold War communist threat - an enemy which can be contained through
military stalemate and diplomatic horse-trading behind the scenes -
have got it seriously wrong. There is nothing negotiable about a death
cult. There is no diplomatic common language for dealing with those
who kidnap and murder people who are trying to bring aid to their own
countrymen and co-religionists.
At dinner one night in New York, I found myself next to the editor of
the New York Times Book Review. I gave him my argument about how
different the confrontation on Islamist terror was from the one with
the Soviet Union.
Capitalism and communism, I said, were both products of the
18th-century Enlightenment: they were competing systems with the same
moral compass. The argument was about how it was best (most just and
beneficial) for people to live. But Islamic fundamentalism declared
that a glorious martyred death was preferable to life. This fight was
not about how to live, but about whether life was worth having at all.
It was of a completely different order, and our opponents were, by the
standards of the modern world, unprecedentedly dangerous.
He was, he said, impressed by this account, but it would not wash in
the United States because Americans thought of communism not as a
misguided attempt to create a beneficent society, but as pure evil.
The demonising of the communist threat (which was not, by Stalin's
time, without good grounds) made it impossible now to distinguish
between the former rational enemy and the current irrational one.
Well yes, I can buy that. But simplistic and crude as American
politics may be, its electorate knows a thing or two about real life.
The former Clinton aide Dick Morris was asked in a television
interview why the term "liberal", by which Americans mean "Left-wing",
had come to be so politically damaging. He said it was because the
country had learnt that liberal (quasi-socialist) policies didn't
work: they didn't end poverty or create opportunity. Only reforming
welfare and getting people into work had done that.
Americans care about the real consequences of ideas. I was very aware
of that at a dinner to celebrate the 25th birthday of the Manhattan
Institute - the think-tank that guided Rudolph Giuliani's mayoral
policies. The institute is an embodiment of American "intellectual
entrepreneurialism". Find ideas that work, propagate them, and put
them into practice: make life better.
That's pretty much the sum total of American political intent.