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Published: 7/9/2003

Election 2004: A nation forced to look back

This is a busy country, occupied with getting, spending, negotiating, bargaining, traveling - and, particularly at this time of year, relaxing. We have little time for reflection. We have few opportunities for contemplation. We have no occasions for defining ourselves - except every four years during national elections.

That's why the election that is approaching in 16 months' time is so perplexing - and so important. Ordinarily Americans use their elections to define the future, and the candidates who contend for the public's support compete with differing visions of that future. In 1960, for example, both Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon emphasized leadership for the future - and those four words were inescapable during the two men's stump speeches, in their literature, and during their televised debates.

Not this time. The country is looking backward, and the candidates for the White House are offering critiques of the past, not blueprints for the future.

Listen to the Democrats who are tramping through Iowa and New Hampshire this summer.

They're criticizing President Bush for his economic policies.

They're raising questions about the nation's preparedness before the terrorist attacks and after.

They're faulting the President for grounding the rationale for the Iraq war in the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction that have yet to be found.

All of those issues are legitimate. All are vital. But all force the nation to turn its head, and its attention, back, toward the past, instead of ahead, toward the future. In all these cases, the past isn't terribly distant; it is, in the case of economic issues, the President's determination from the very beginning of his term to cut taxes and, in the case of national security, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

For that reason, the 2004 election isn't shaping up as a contest about the promise or the challenges of the future. Instead, it stands as a statement on, and a symbol of, Americans' fears rooted in the past.

That's not the way Americans usually run their elections, even in wartime. The 1944 election, conducted during World War II, wasn't about who was to blame for Pearl Harbor or even the lack of American readiness for combat around the globe in 1941 and 1942. It was about the postwar future. The 1968 election, a bitter, close contest conducted in the middle of the Vietnam era, wasn't about who got the United States involved in conflict in Southeast Asia. It was about whether Mr. Nixon or Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey had the better plan for getting the nation out of the war and addressing the racial and economic problems that faced the nation in the future.

Indeed, most American elections are about the future. The 1964 contest, when President Lyndon B. Johnson was elected in his own right after the assassination of President Kennedy, was largely about whether Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, could be trusted with the future. The 1972 contest, between Mr. Nixon and Sen. George S. McGovern, was about two very different views of the future. The 1976 election, where President Gerald R. Ford was defeated by Gov. Jimmy Carter, was about the future after Watergate.

The focus of the last three elections was firmly on the future. In the 1992 election, when President George H.W. Bush failed to win re-election, Gov. Bill Clinton was able to convince the American people that a new generation of leaders was needed to face a new generation of challenges. Four years later, when former Sen. Robert J. Dole challenged Mr. Clinton, the President spoke often of the future, using the compelling metaphor of creating a bridge to the 21st century. And the last election, mired in recounts and recrimination, nonetheless was about which of the two baby-boomer candidates was best equipped to carry America into the future. Even the candidate with the most reason to look back upon eight years of peace and prosperity, Vice President Al Gore, declined to do so.

So far the 2004 election looks like a conflict between two competing views of the past. President Bush is running as the man who responded with courage and character to the attacks in New York and Washington.

The Democratic challengers are questioning whether Mr. Bush's record is all he says it is. They are also asking a question that may answer itself, and not to the Democrats' advantage: Can we trust a man who has won two wars to run American foreign policy?

These Democratic candidates are offering remarkably little about the future. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, to be sure, has proposed a sweeping health-care plan, but that is largely the effort of a political figure who has been in the House for a quarter-century not to look like a man of the past. Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont also talks about health care, but most of his energy (and most of his stunning harvest of money) is derived from his blistering critique of the President's record.

“None of these Democrats have given the people a vision of the future that says: `This is what you are going to get,'” says L. Sandy Maisel, director of the new Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “Bush has a past that is unassailable from a political point of view. Even if the Democrats are right about all that they are saying, it makes no sense politically to make their arguments.”

Only three elections in the past half-century were about the past. The contests occurred in 1956, 1980, and 1984.

The Republicans plainly have studied them.

So should the Democrats. The Republicans won them all.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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