If Bush and Kerry partisans can agree on anything, it's that the stakes on Election Day couldn't be any higher. "The most important election of our lifetime," both parties intone. Like most pieces of conventional wisdom, this oft-repeated shibboleth leaves plenty of room for doubt.
One of the hidden strengths of the American electoral system is that it rarely presents voters with a very stark choice. Both parties hew closely to the center, and, notwithstanding pre-election bloviation, there is always a great deal of continuity between administrations. The falsity of most campaign rhetoric becomes obvious if you consider two of the most acrimonious elections of the 20th century.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson painted Barry Goldwater as a nutty warmonger. In 1972, Richard Nixon painted George McGovern as a soft-on-communism peacenik. Yet what happened after the vote? Johnson became ever more embroiled in bombing Vietnam back to the stone age, while Nixon exited the war by cutting a deal with the communist regime in Hanoi. It's hard to know, in retrospect, what all the fuss was about.
The choice this time is even less clear-cut. Both President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry claim to be fiscal conservatives, yet each proposes a plethora of new programs. Bush is more likely than Kerry to press for partial privatization of Social Security, while Kerry is more likely to press for partial federalization of health care. Odds are that neither man will get all he wants out of a Congress that will remain deeply divided.
There's even less chance either candidate would make a major difference on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Significant change will require a constitutional amendment or a radical recasting of the Supreme Court, neither of which would be easy to accomplish, no matter who occupies the Oval Office.
What about national security? If you listen to Bush, Kerry's election would result in nuclear annihilation. If you listen to Kerry, Bush's election would result in another draft. The reality is that, no matter who's elected, a nuclear attack could happen and a draft won't happen.
The two candidates are actually offering many similar policies. In Iraq, both promise to train local security forces, retain U.S. troops and hold elections. On North Korea, both promise negotiations — Kerry unilaterally, Bush multilaterally. On Iran, Kerry vows to cut a deal, while Bush says he won't, yet he gives the green light to the Europeans to deal on America's behalf. On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both say they strongly back Israel while opposing Yasser Arafat. On military action, both say they would use force pre-emptively and not give the United Nations a veto on U.S. interventions.
This is not to suggest that they're Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Kerry is more multilateralist than Bush and less likely to use force. Yet both would face pressures that would push them toward the center.
I was reminded of just how alike the candidates' foreign policies could be when Kerry adviser Richard Holbrooke called to complain about a column in which I criticized his statement that the "war on terror" was "just a metaphor." That quote came from The New York Times Magazine, but Holbrooke tells me it was taken out of context — his point, he says, was that we should fight individual terrorists, not an abstraction like "terror." Fair enough. Holbrooke is a hawk, and I don't doubt that he would prosecute the war on terror (excuse me, terrorists) pretty vigorously. The same is true of Joe Biden, the other front-runner for secretary of state in a Kerry administration.
That hardly allays my concerns about Kerry, who has a long record as a dove and a political opportunist. But I admit he might well prove me wrong.
If he did, he would also prove wrong his more dovish supporters, who think he'll be the second coming of Howard Dean. Likewise, Bush could easily disappoint his more hawkish supporters by backing away from confrontations with North Korea, Syria and Iran — as, in fact, he's done during his first term.
To paraphrase Forrest Gump, the presidency is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you're going to get. The pseudo-certainty of the campaign season will soon disappear.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.