I’m not undecided, I’m unhappy II
: When David Brooks is good, he’s great. Today’s column is a superb analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of both candidates for President and says much better than I did why this is such a troubling choice.
Kerry can’t make a decision; Bush makes them too quickly. Kerry changes his mind by the month; Bush almost never changes his mind. Kerry thinks obsessively about process questions, but can’t seem to come up with a core conviction; Bush is great at coming up with clear goals, but is not so great about coming up with the process to get there.
That’s right about both men. It has a broad impact on how they would govern: Bush is better at stating principle but, judging by the followup in Iraq, not so good at executing the principle. Kerry is incapable of stating principle — he seems almost scared of it — and though he is unproven at executive-level execution, he is at least analytical, as Brooks says.
This also has a specific impact on how they view the war on terror. Says Brooks:
On Thursday night, Bush defined the war on terror as a broad moral and ideological struggle. He said, “We have a solemn duty to defeat this ideology of hate.”
Bush believes that Iraq is a crucial battlefield in the war because a free Iraq will be a rebuttal to radical Islam right in the heart of the Arab world.
Kerry, on the other hand, defined the enemy in narrow, concrete terms. He emphasized that it was Osama bin Laden who attacked us. He emphasized the need to defeat Al Qaeda’s network. He called Iraq a diversion from defeating that network.
And this is precisely why I had such a problem with the debate: I agree with Bush, as Brooks states it, and disagree with Kerry. Note that the 9/11 Commission, for its many fans, also agreed with Bush in saying that the enemy is Islamic fascism.
Brooks is critical of both men’s styles. He says that because Kerry cannot blend his specific analyses into larger guiding principles, that is the reason he can change his mind on issues to effortlessly. He says that Bush, on the other hand, is stubborn (“steadfast and resolute” were his words, actually) and as a result:
Bush launched a pre-emptive war even though his intelligence community was incompetent. He occupied a country even though he didn’t really believe in, or work with, the institutions of government he would need to complete the task.
Nonetheless, I suspect that the reason Bush’s approval ratings hover around 50 percent, despite a year of carnage in Iraq, is because of the reason many of us in the commentariat don’t like to talk about: in a faithful and moralistic nation, Bush’s language has a resonance with people who know that he is not always competent, and who know that he doesn’t always dominate every argument, but who can sense a shared cast of mind.
What I have been dying to hear from Kerry is overall principle about fighting terrorism — not just bin Laden — and about nurturing democracy in the Middle East but instead, all I hear is his analysis of what Bush did wrong. And Bush did things wrong. And that’s why I remain, not undecided but unhappy with our choice.
: UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan links to Brooks’ column and adds:
But what strikes me in Brooks’ defense of Bush is how it’s traditionally a liberal defense of a liberal president. It’s liberalism that has historically enunciated grand, abstract themes and conservatism that has always emphasized the difficulty of translating abstraction into reality, of finding the proper means to achieve certain ends, of the limits of our intellect when faced with the world of practical life. In that philosophical sense, it is Kerry who is the practical conservative in this race; and Bush who is the airy-fairy idealist.