Niall Ferguson: All responsible Republicans should vote for John Kerry

American conservatism will gain if Bush misses out on a second term

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It is doubtless not the most tactful question to ask on the eve the Republican Party convention, but might it not be better for American conservatism if President Bush failed to win a second term?

It is doubtless not the most tactful question to ask on the eve the Republican Party convention, but might it not be better for American conservatism if President Bush failed to win a second term?

Yes, I know, the official Republican line is that nothing could possibly be as bad for the US as a Kerry presidency. According to the Bush campaign, Kerry's record of vacillation and inconsistency in the Senate would make him a disastrously indecisive Potus (secret service speak for the President of the United States) - more of an Im-Potus perhaps. By contrast, they insist, Bush is decisiveness incarnate. And when this president makes a decision, he sticks to it with Texan tenacity, no matter how wrong it turns out to be.

It is a mistake, however, to conceive of each presidential contest as a discrete event - a simple, categorical choice between two individuals, with consequences stretching no further than four years. To be sure, there are many tendencies in American political life that will not be fundamentally affected by the outcome of November's election. For example, contrary to what Kerry claimed in his convention speech last month, there are profound structural causes for the widening rift between the US and its erstwhile allies on the European continent that no new president could possibly counteract.

Regardless of whether Bush or Kerry is in the White House next year, the US will be stuck with the dirty work of policing post-Saddam Iraq with minimal European assistance other than from Great Britain - which, by the same token, will remain its most reliable military ally regardless of who is president. Nor would the election of Kerry have the slightest impact on the ambition of terrorist organisations such as al-Qa'ida to inflict harm on the US. Even if Americans elected Michael Moore as president, Osama bin Laden would remain implacable.

In geopolitical terms, at least, what happens on 2 November will change very little. Yet in other respects - and particularly in terms of party politics - the election's consequences could be far-reaching. It is not too much to claim that the result could shape US political life for a decade or more.

Some 14 years ago, in another English-speaking country, an unpopular and in many respects incompetent Conservative leader secured re-election by the narrowest of margins and against the run of the opinion polls. His name was John Major and his subsequent period in office, marred as it was by a staggering range of economic, diplomatic and political errors of judgement, doomed the British Conservative Party to - so far - seven years in the political wilderness. I say "so far" because the damage done to the Tories' reputation by the Major government of 1992-97 was such that there is still no sign whatsoever of its returning to power.

Many Conservatives would now agree that it would have been far better for their party if Major had lost the election of 1992. For one thing, the government deserved to lose. The decision to take the UK into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism had plunged the British economy into a severe recession, characterised by a painful housing market bust. For another, the Labour candidate, Neil Kinnock, had all the hallmarks of a one-term prime minister. It was, indeed, his weakness as a candidate that finally enabled Major to scrape home with a tiny majority of just 21 out of 651 seats. Had Kinnock won, the exchange rate crisis of September 1992 would have engulfed an inexperienced Labour government, and the Conservatives, having replaced Major with a more credible leader, could have looked forward to an early return to office.

Instead, the next five years were a kind of Tory dance of death, in which the party not only tore itself apart over its European policy, but also helped to tear Bosnia apart by refusing all assistance to those resisting Serbian aggression. Meanwhile, a spate of petty sexual and financial scandals discredited one minister after another, making a mockery of Major's call for a return to traditional family values. All of this provided the perfect seedbed for the advent of New Labour and the election by a landslide of Tony Blair in May 1997. Well, Blair is still in No 10 and, having weathered the worst of the political storm over Iraq, seems likely to remain there for some time.

Could something similar happen in the US? In my view, the Bush administration, too, does not deserve to be re-elected. Its idée fixe about regime change in Iraq was not a logical response to 9/11. Its fiscal policy has been a orgy of irresponsibility. Given the hesitations of independent voters in the key swing states, the polls point to a narrow Bush defeat. Yet Kerry, like Kinnock, is the kind of candidate who can blow an election in a single soundbite. It's easy to imagine Bush scraping home by the narrowest of margins.

But then what? The lesson of British history is that a second Bush term could be more damaging to the Republican Party and more beneficial to the Democrats than a Bush defeat. If he secures re-election, Bush will press on with a foreign policy based on pre-emptive military force, ignore the impending fiscal crisis (on the Cheney principle that "deficits don't matter") and pursue socially conservative objectives such as the constitutional ban on gay marriage. Anyone who thinks this combination will maintain Republican Party unity is dreaming; it will do the opposite. The Demo- crats will have another four years to figure out what the Labour Party figured out: it's the candidate, stupid. And when the 2008 Republican candidate goes head-to-head with the American Blair, he will be wiped out.

The obvious retort is that US politics is not the same as British politics. No? Go back to 1956, and recall the events that led to the re-election of another Republican incumbent. Sure, Dwight Eisenhower didn't have much in common personally with George W Bush, except perhaps the relaxed work-rate. But Ike was no slouch when it came to regime change. In 1953 a CIA-sponsored coup in Iran installed as dictator Mohammad Reza Shah. In 1954 Ike enunciated the domino theory, following the defeat of France in Vietnam, and invaded Guatemala to install another pro-US dictator. In 1955 he threatened to defend Taiwan by force when the Chinese shelled the islands of Quemoy and Matsu.

Yet his refusal to back the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt following Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal, and his acquiescence in the Soviet invasion of Hungary, should have alerted voters to the lack of coherence in his strategy. Predictably, Ike's re-election was followed by foreign policy reverses - not least the overthrow of Iraq's Hashemite monarchy, Castro's takeover of Cuba and the shooting down of Gary Powers' U-2 plane over the Soviet Union. These were the setbacks that lent credibility to John F Kennedy's hawkish campaign in 1960. And his victory handed the rest of the decade to the Democrats.

Like Adlai Stevenson before him, John Kerry has an aura of unelectability that may yet prove fatal to his hopes. But a Stevenson victory in 1956 would have transformed subsequent US political history. With good reason, conservatives may ask themselves whether defeat in 1956 might ultimately have averted the much bigger defeats they suffered in the 1960s.

In the same way, moderate Republicans may wonder if a second Bush term is in their best interests. Might four years of Kerry not be preferable to eight or more years of really effective Democratic leadership?

Niall Ferguson is Professor of History at Harvard University. His latest book is 'Colossus: The Price of America's Empire' (Penguin Press)

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