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Jewish World Review June 21, 2004 / 2 Tamuz, 5764

Michael Barone

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Changing Warhorses in Midstream: An electoral loss by Lincoln in 1864 would have greatly altered U.S. history. The situation is similar today |
On Jan. 5, 1762, the Czarina Elizabeth died. Russia was in the midst of the Seven Years' War, fighting alongside Austria and France and against the Prussia of Frederick the Great. Prussia was on the verge of defeat: Before he learned of the czarina's death, Frederick wrote to an aide, "We ought now to think of preserving for my nephew, by way of negotiation, whatever fragments of my territory we can save from the avidity of my enemies." But Elizabeth's death changed everything. Her successor, the Czar Peter III, was an admirer of Frederick, and Russia withdrew from the war. Frederick prevailed on the battlefield and emerged the winner in the treaties signed in 1763.

A change in leadership in wartime can change the outcome of the war. It's not always true: Adolf Hitler took heart when Franklin Roosevelt died April 12, 1945. He thought Roosevelt's death would rescue him as Elizabeth's death had rescued Frederick. But Harry Truman carried on the war, and before the end of the month Hitler was dead in his bunker. Still, leadership change in a war is risky business.

Consider the presidential election of 1864. The defeat of the incumbent, Abraham Lincoln, would have made an enormous difference. Union casualties were heavy throughout the year. It was widely expected that Gen. George McClellan, ousted from heading the Union army by Lincoln in 1862, would be the Democratic nominee and that he would win. Lincoln was renominated by the Republican National Convention in June, but through September many prominent Republicans were plotting to choose another nominee. Lincoln clearly stood for continued prosecution of the war, and the Republican platform came out strongly for the abolition of slavery. The Democrats were united around McClellan at their August convention but divided on policy. The Copperhead wing of the party wanted immediate peace, and it managed to write the party platform.

Is the 2004 election as consequential as the election of 1864? The answer to that question depends on what you think John Kerry's military and foreign policy would be, and there is room for thinking many things.

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Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that a Kerry foreign policy would not be much different from George W. Bush's. He would be boxed in, Mead suggests, by events: As Kerry has said, he would not withdraw from Iraq; he would have to be concerned about Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs; he would largely continue our policy toward China (not much altered since Richard Nixon went to Beijing); he would not be able to propitiate a France whose central foreign policy aim is to block U.S. power.

There is something to say for Mead's argument, but I take a different view. Bush, in his formal National Security Strategy statement and in his actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, has transformed U.S. foreign policy more than any president since Truman. The very violence of Kerry's denunciations of Bush; his contempt for the president, which he makes no effort to conceal; the suggestion that America under Bush is totally isolated from the world — these positions will have consequences. They affect what other nations and what the terrorists think the U.S. will do and thus have a role in determining how they will act.

Moreover, Kerry will be the nominee of a party that is split as much as McClellan's was. About half of Democrats favor the Iraq war and about half are against. Pollster Scott Rasmussen recently reported that 62% of Americans agreed that the world would be a better place if other countries became more like the United States, while only 14% believed it would be a worse place. But there is a big difference between Republicans and Democrats. Fully 81% of Bush voters but only 48% of Kerry voters agreed with the statement.

The next four years are likely to present unforeseen challenges, and the difference between Bush and Kerry, although not as great as that between Lincoln and McClellan, will probably be greater than the differences between candidates in the wartime elections of the 20th century. Throwing out this president would make a difference.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report His latest book is "Hard America, Soft America : Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2004, Michael Barone