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Monday, November 03, 2008

Kevin Drum has gotten a lot of people talking with his suggestion that the Left is better off having lost with Kerry in 2004 if it meant going on to win with Obama in 2008.

Back in 2004, I remember at least a few bloggers and pundits arguing that liberals would be better off if John Kerry lost. I never really bought this, but the arguments were pretty reasonable. Leaving George Bush in power meant that he'd retain responsibility and blame for the Iraq war. (Despite the surge, that's exactly what happened.) Four more years of Republican control would turn the American public firmly against conservative misrule. (Actually, it only took two years.) If we waited, a better candidate than Kerry would come along. (Arguably, both Hillary Clinton and Obama were better candidates.)

Conversely, it's unlikely that John Kerry could have gotten much done with a razor-thin victory and a Congress still controlled by the GOP. What's more, there's a good chance that the 2006 midterm rebellion against congressional Republicans wouldn't have happened if Kerry had gotten elected. By waiting, we've gotten a strong, charismatic candidate who's likely to win convincingly and have huge Democratic majorities in Congress behind him. If he's willing to fully use the power of his office, Obama could very well be a transformational president.
Dana at The Edge of the American West and Hilzoy both make arguments that this is something a political partisan must never allow themselves to consider—you have to fight to win, every time, as hard as you can, because the future is uncertain and unknowable and the present is immediate. And yet it seems to me that Kevin is obviously right that the horrific Bush victory in 2004 could in fact turn out to have been better than a Kerry victory, given a successful Obama presidency and a long-enough time horizon. It depends what Obama does once he takes office, if he turns out to be the transformational president I have long believed he will be, and to what extent the disastrous policies of the last four years can be "undone" through wise policy in the next eight.

As it stands, alongside what evil he has done, Bush has nearly singlehandedly destroyed both the Republican Party and conservatism as an ideology. Republicans were driven from Congress in historic proportions in 2006, with 2008 looking to surpass it. Obama, the most progressive candidate for president in my lifetime, will nominate at least two, and possibly more, judges to the Supreme Court, while (again, in the best-case scenario) implementing environmental and social reforms that could come to redefine American capitalism in much the same way as the New Deal. 2008 could realign the country politically, in our favor, for decades.

Does a Kerry presidency match this? As much as I like Kerry and as hard as I worked to get him elected, this counterhistory seems much less successful. A Kerry who wins 2004 in a squeaker in Ohio still faces the disastrous consequences of the first Bush term, as well as Katrina and perhaps even, to some extent or another, this year's bottoming-out of the post-Fordist culture of debt. In that universe we might well be watching Kerry go down to a nail-biter against Romney, a fight I'm not at all sure we'd win. Likewise, Republicans weren't forced out from Congress in 2006, and don't face crushing losses in 2008. The country, though spared four very bad years, has not been transformed.

The point is this: taking a longer view than the four-year election cycle, a very successful Obama presidency will have been better for both the Left and the country as a whole than the weak, "caretaker" Kerry presidency we likely would have gotten out of 2004. If Obama lives up to the hype, historically speaking it might have all been worth it. Let's hope.