This period betweeen the major political party conventions is a good time to think through what's at stake in this year's presidential election. Leaders of voter-registration drives on both sides speak of a "pivotal election": Is that hype or truth?
My immediate reaction is skepticism. Almost every presidential election has seemed pivotal to the contending forces, but look at two of the hardest-fought and closest: Was the American trajectory radically affected when Grover Cleveland lost to Benjamin Harrison in 1888? Was the 1892 rematch between the two equally pivotal?
The same could be said regarding almost any election prior to 1980. Was Van Buren's 1840 loss to Tippecanoe (and Tyler too) pivotal? How about Coolidge vs. Davis in 1924? Bush political wizard Karl Rove brings to journalists' attention McKinley vs. Bryan in 1896 and 1900, but had Bryan won we still would not have had what a truly pivotal election-the Civil War-precipitating clash of 1860-brought upon us.
How about modern times? Conservatives were pleased when Richard Nixon edged out Hubert Humphrey in 1968, but Nixon in office helped to further big government. After Nixon in the purportedly pivotal election of 1972 beat George McGovern, an initially tiny Watergate cloud led to a huge Democratic victory in the 1974 elections and the rapid fall of South Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975.
The debate about Vietnam contributed to a change in American politics. Throughout much of the Cold War the willingness to stand up to anti-American dictatorships was bipartisan, but a Democratic lurch to the left created an appeasement party that turned the 1980 contest between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan into a pivotal one.
I grew up during the Cold War, and had President Reagan not stepped up the military and rhetorical pressure on Soviet leaders as they were being forced to acknowledge that their economy was fatally flawed, my children might still be facing ICBMs with nuclear warheads. The Berlin Wall might still be standing, with tens of millions of Eastern Europeans still enslaved.
Almost every election since 1980 has pitted a sometimes soupy GOP against a watery Democratic Party. Look at recent revelations concerning our new war against terrorism: As the 9/11 commission suggested, Bill Clinton's unwillingness to declare war on al-Qaeda after it had declared war on us led to the event that brought the commission into existence.
Think about the election of 2000: If Al Gore had received a few hundred more Floridian votes, he would have made some presidential noises in September 2001, but would most likely have continued for four more years hemming and hawing over terrorism and the dictatorships that support it.
That brings us to the presidential election this fall, which I reluctantly conclude is pivotal because two decidedly different views of America's role in the world confront us. A President John Kerry could talk a good game, but does he understand that there is evil in the world and that we must stand up against it? Or does he think that those who hate America, as well as the Christian principles on which our country is based, can be massaged into politeness?
Even if Mr. Kerry were suddenly to show vision rather than equivocation, the pressures on the Democratic side toward accommodation and appeasement are great. A stubborn Andrew Jackson or Harry Truman could resist such pressures, but those hoping to curry favor with the French cannot. One new reference work, The Book of Rule, begins its discussion of "how we are governed" with a spread on the United Nations. That's what John Kerry is likely to make first in war, although not in the hearts of his countrymen.
Furthermore, what comes first in peace? I haven't so far mentioned domestic social issues, which would not make an election pivotal if we had basic agreement on what makes a just or good society, or even on how to decide such questions. Now, we do not. As Supreme Court justices continue to grab power, we can either curse their dark robes or push for the appointment of candles rather than smudgepots. With several justices perhaps waiting until after the election to retire, the next president may have his judicial way for the next 30 years.
Oh, I hate to describe this November's election as pivotal. A Republican win will not mean victory for biblical principle but only the opportunity to keep battling for the soul of the GOP-and victory for compassionate conservatism will once again be elusive. Sadly, if the Democrats win, international and further judicial disaster is within our grasp.