President Barack Obama on the campaign trail. (Photo credit: barackobama.com)
When I look at Election 2012, I am reminded of eerie parallels to Election 2000. In both cases, imperfect Democratic presidents had made progress righting the American ship of state, improving the economy, reducing levels of violence abroad and demonstrating that government could be a force for good at home.
So, the choice was whether to continue those policies under the Democrats -- Al Gore in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2012 -- or to heed Republican promises about how much better everything would be if the federal government were pushed out of the way and the "free market" were allowed to operate with fewer regulations and lower taxes.
The U.S. news media also behaved irresponsibly during Campaign 2000, treating it as a time to haze Al Gore by running him through an impossible obstacle course and penalizing him for stumbles, while applying far gentler standards for his rival, George W. Bush. Gore was the obnoxious know-it-all; Bush the charming "regular guy."
So, a combination of a demoralized Left, an energized Right and a goofy news media created the conditions for a near dead-heat election in 2000, a nightmarish deja vu to the situation that exists in the United States on the eve of this Election Day. [For details on Election 2000, see our book, Neck Deep.]
I also am hearing similar arguments today from folks on the Left that there's no real difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, just as I was told by friends in Ralph Nader's campaign that there wasn't "a dime's worth of difference" between Al Gore and George W. Bush a dozen years ago.
In 2000, when I expressed my concerns about the neoconservatives who surrounded Bush, I was told that I was being paranoid, that Bush would push aside the neocons if he got elected and would listen instead to the "realists" who had dominated George H.W. Bush's foreign policy.
It turned out that these friends were wrong on both counts. Few people today would still argue that Al Gore would have been as disastrous a president as George W. Bush was, nor would they say that the neocons didn't have Bush's ear at crucial moments, especially after the 9/11 attacks.
The results of Bush's eight years in office were catastrophic to the nation and the world. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis -- and nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers -- were killed in a war launched under false pretenses. Trillions of dollars were wasted on war and other military spending. Bush's tax-cut and deregulatory fervor contributed to massive federal deficits and a bubble-and-bust economy that exploded into a near depression in 2008.
Bush's contempt for the science of global warming also meant that the United States did next to nothing to address that emerging existential threat to human civilization. And his right-wing appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court wiped out decades of painstaking reforms aimed at limiting the power of special-interest money in U.S. politics.
A Gore Presidency
By contrast, a President Gore might well have taken actions to avert the 9/11 attacks. He understood the threat from al-Qaeda and would surely not have blown off the CIA warnings in summer 2001 as Bush did. Even if 9/11 had occurred, Gore would not have used the crisis to wage an unprovoked war against Iraq.
Gore also would not have enacted massive tax cuts benefiting millionaires; he would have been a more careful steward of the economy; he would have appointed more reasonable justices to the Supreme Court; and he would have taken action on one of his personal priorities, global warming.
It is painful to think how different the world might be today if the U.S. media/political system had behaved more responsibly in 2000. But what is perhaps even more painful is how few lessons have been learned. According to some polls, a plurality of the American electorate is prepared to vote for another "anti-government" Republican in 2012.
After a brief four-year respite from Republican rule, the nation and the world are finally digging out of the wreckage left behind by Bush. The war in Iraq has ended; the Afghan War is winding down; the financial system is stabilizing; the employment situation is gradually improving.
While President Obama certainly deserves some criticism, especially for his failure to break more fully with Bush's national security policies, Obama actually has turned out to be a better executive than I had expected in 2008 when I viewed him as lacking in administrative experience.
Yet, over the past four years, Obama has applied an analytical approach to decision-making which could be a model for future presidents. He "works" the available data and then reaches clear conclusions. His decision to authorize the special-operations raid against Osama bin Laden may be the best known example of this approach, but he has applied it to a variety of hard choices, both foreign and domestic.