It’s easy to forget now, but there was a time in the not-too-distant past when it seemed to millions of Americans that John Kerry was all that stood between us and Armageddon. I was one of these – freshly graduated from high school in a conservative town and newly ensconced among fellow liberals on a college campus just in time to throw my heart and soul into the Kerry campaign. The months leading up to the election were a frenzy of phone-banking, door-knocking, rally-attending, and only occasional studying.
We all know how this story ends, of course – Kerry loses. Four years later, as Barack Obama captivates the imaginations of Americans on the way to the White House, I vote for him, but not with the same sense of urgency and zeal with which I had voted for Kerry four years earlier. Neither did I do much in the way of active campaigning. There were a number of factors involved. It looked a lot more certain in 2008 that the Democratic candidate would win than it had in 2004. Furthermore, I had not gotten fully behind Obama in the contentious Democratic primary, seeing much to admire in both him and Hillary Clinton. Perhaps I was also influenced by my awareness that living through the past four years of the Bush administration had not ruined my life. I know on an intellectual level that my ability to make that statement about the Bush administration is largely the result of accidents of circumstance, such as the fact that I’m heterosexual and I’m not a resident of New Orleans. Had I been born into different circumstances, my experience of the second Bush term might have been quite different. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help having a gut feeling along the lines of “if I can survive Bush, I can survive anything.” Additionally, my realization that Republicans could own and love black cats weakened my ability to view them as irredeemable. But I think the biggest factor of all was simply age – my transition from the passionate, youthful idealism of 2004 to the somewhat more skeptical and jaded perspective of 2008.
Now that John Kerry is back in the news as President Obama’s nominee to be Secretary of State, I have been reflecting on what might have happened if I had gotten my wish from 2004 and Kerry had been elected President. I truly believe that a lot of great things might have happened – we might have disengaged from Iraq more quickly, for instance, and we might have a more progressive Supreme Court. But what if the economy had collapsed just as it ultimately did under Bush? There’s no way of knowing if this really would have happened, of course – witness the “butterfly effect.” But if the structural weaknesses of the economy had manifested themselves under President Kerry just as they did under President Bush, the backlash against Republicans that helped fuel Obama’s election in 2008 might have instead taken the form of a backlash against Democrats. President Kerry could have been defeated by a Republican challenged in 2008, and this hypothetical Republican may well have been re-elected this year – Obama’s 2012 victory demonstrated that a general public belief that the economy is slowly but surely improving could be enough to carry a President to victory (along with many other factors, of course), even if the economy is not yet roaring along at late ’90s levels. So should I be – gasp – HAPPY that Kerry lost? I can’t let myself believe that just yet, mostly because there’s no real way of knowing if a 2004 Kerry victory would have laid the foundations for a contemporary Republican dynasty. Still, it’s worth considering. History is littered with these sorts of puzzles. The average Republican would probably be glad that Gerald Ford lost in 1976 if he or she understood that a Ford victory over Jimmy Carter that year might have meant that Ronald Reagan would never be President. Going further back, Herbert Hoover’s victory in 1928 paved the way for 20 years of Democratic dominance after Hoover and his party took on much of the public blame for the Great Depression. And now that I think about it, perhaps if dinosaurs were around today, they would regret the extent of the dominance they once wielded over the planet, in light of how it rendered them overconfident and oblivious in the face of the whatever it was that reduced them to extinction. And one day humans will look back with sorrow at their inability to recognize that their status as masters of the universe would inevitably be usurped by cats. One never knows what poison lurks in the victory chalice.