Not Better Off

Kevin Drum asks a question:

“Back in 2004, I remember at least a few bloggers and pundits arguing that liberals would be better off if John Kerry lost. I never really bought this, but the arguments were pretty reasonable. Leaving George Bush in power meant that he’d retain responsibility and blame for the Iraq war. (Despite the surge, that’s exactly what happened.) Four more years of Republican control would turn the American public firmly against conservative misrule. (Actually, it only took two years.) If we waited, a better candidate than Kerry would come along. (Arguably, both Hillary Clinton and Obama were better candidates.)

Conversely, it’s unlikely that John Kerry could have gotten much done with a razor-thin victory and a Congress still controlled by the GOP. What’s more, there’s a good chance that the 2006 midterm rebellion against congressional Republicans wouldn’t have happened if Kerry had gotten elected. By waiting, we’ve gotten a strong, charismatic candidate who’s likely to win convincingly and have huge Democratic majorities in Congress behind him. If he’s willing to fully use the power of his office, Obama could very well be a transformational president.

So: were we, in fact, better off losing in 2004? The downside was four more years of George Bush and Dick Cheney. That’s hardly to be minimized, especially since the upside is still not completely knowable. But for myself, I think I’m convinced. The cause of liberal change is better served by Obama in 2008 than it would have been by Kerry in 2004.”

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Obama wins tomorrow. (If he doesn’t, this argument can’t get off the ground.) And suppose further that we will, in fact, be better off for that fact, which I grant only for the sake of argument. This could still never be the basis for any actual decision in 2004. In 2004 we didn’t know nearly enough to be able to predict this with certainty. If Kerry had won, he’d be the presumptive nominee this year, and if he had done reasonably well, we’d be looking at another four years of Democratic rule. Did we know nearly enough, in 2004, to be able to say with certainty that the Democrats would win this time? I don’t think so. Among other things, we did not know that the Democrats would get a nominee of unusual political talent; we did not know about Katrina; we did not know that the economy would melt down as dramatically as it did a month before the election, or that the Republican candidate would react to that meltdown in a way that fundamentally undermined the premise of his candidacy, etc., etc., etc. Moreover, did we know, at the time, that even if things went very badly for Bush, the Democrats would react by growing spines? Not as far as I can see; at any rate, induction didn’t provide a lot of support for that conclusion.

Moreover, if you tried to predict the future in 2004, you’d end up thinking: my willingness to stop working for Kerry for the sake of gains in 2008 depends on my confidence that Democrats would, in fact, win in 2008. But that depends in large part on how badly Bush does. So I should only consider hoping Kerry loses if I am convinced that Bush will be a complete disaster.

There is something profoundly wrong with that logic. If you think Bush would be bad for the country, that’s a reason to work against him, not for him. And if you think he’d be not just bad, but a complete catastrophe, that’s a reason to work even harder, not to stop.

Conversely, as Dana at Edge Of The West notes:

“For the argument to even get off the ground, you have to make the case that Kerry would have not done measurably better than Bush. I think it is reasonable to suppose that this is false. (Supreme Court. That’s one. We could make a list.) But suppose this is true; suppose that the various problems facing the country are too big for set of liberal policies to make a meaningful difference. Then what was the argument for voting for Kerry as the Democrats wanted us to do? (Will the same hold true for Obama? All these people seem to be supporting him strongly now. If he loses, am I going to hear how great that is, because in 2012 things will really suck which will be awesome for liberals?)”

Dana concludes:

“This mild rant would not be worth the ink if it were just an attempt to find a silver lining in a Kerry loss. But it seems to be to more than that, this idea that politics for liberals should be largely a game of scoring points, like it’s an academic debate or a game of Civilization played as the Americans. It seems like it’s meant to be something that should be informing grand strategies, or something that should be a consideration for the average liberal.

I cannot describe fully the visceral reaction I have to this argument, because it’s complicated, about one-third “I can see your point …” and two-thirds ” … but to endorse that point, I’d have to think we were playing a game, and we’re not, and if you think we are playing a game, then you’re in the relatively fortunate position of being personally indifferent to the outcome of the election because of the security of your station and finances, and maybe you should think about those who don’t have that luxury.””

Or, to put it another way: I think that one of the reasons things turned so toxic for Republicans was Katrina. It made a lot of arguments about Bush’s incompetence suddenly clear and vivid and all too easy to grasp. If you’re willing to argue that we ought to be glad Kerry lost, then I think you ought to be willing to explain to the loved ones of someone who died as a result of our incompetent response why it was for the best that their loved one died. You might also imagine explaining to the Uighur detainees at Guantanamo — who were found not to be enemy combatants — why it is, all things considered, a good thing that they have spent years in solitary that they would not otherwise have spent, years in which children they have never met grow older, and their memories of what it means to walk the earth freely fade even further away. And, of course, you’d need to explain to a lot of families and friends of soldiers why their loved ones had to die for liberalism, whether they themselves were liberals or not.

Those are not arguments I’m prepared to make.