Having spent a good part of my life covering changes of government brought about by bayonets and tanks, I am always in awe of the democratic and bloodless way in which millions of Americans go to the polls to decide who shall govern them. Yet there are some intriguing ironies about the elections of 2006 now just days away.
The traditional political wisdom is that the economy, not foreign policy, determines the outcome of US national elections. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush lost reelection because Bill Clinton paid scrupulous heed to his advisers' mantra: "The economy, stupid."
The American economy is better off today under the present President Bush than it was in his father's time. The stock market has cracked the 12000 ceiling. Unemployment is down to 4.6 percent. Gas prices are propitiously dropping on election eve.
Yet it is foreign policy – "the war against terrorism" as the Republicans put it, "the war in Iraq" as the Democrats put it – that has dominated the campaign. The GOP has cast House minority leader Nancy Pelosi as a kind of Wicked Witch of the West, or at least from California, who, if she came to be House speaker, would urge surrender in Iraq and bring the troops precipitately home. The Democrats have cast the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld triumvirate as a band of Goth-like warmongers who seek to stifle freedoms at home while dealing military destruction abroad.
Another anomaly is that this year's midterms are being used as a kind of previewing test of the 2008 presidential elections. This is always a fascinating curiosity to non-American observers of the US political process, many of whom hail from countries where campaigns can be as short as six weeks. Though none have actually declared themselves candidates at this time, a bunch of presidential hopefuls who coyly proclaim themselves unannounced are campaigning vigorously.
Among Republican names in play, probably the most believable is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who, when pestered by reporters, protests she really, really, isn't interested in the job. But Sen. John McCain of Arizona is clearly running, crisscrossing the country to make speeches and line up supporters, and exchange verbal shots with Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, the foremost runner on the Democratic side. Mitt Romney is out there trying to prove that a sharp governor from a liberal state such as Massachusetts can garner national support. Bill Frist is promoting the idea that a senator from Tennessee (who sometimes has trouble bringing an unruly Senate to heel), could do a dandy job running the country.
On the Democratic side, Senator Clinton is painted by Republicans as an alarming specter even more liberal in 2008 than Rep. Pelosi in 2006. But Clinton has a secret weapon, spouse Bill, who can be as charming by her side as she can be tough. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who somehow never succeeded in coming across as a regular bike-riding, windsurfing, quail-hunting guy in his campaign against Mr. Bush two years ago, says he will decide after the coming elections whether to try it again.
Then there is the phenomenal Barack Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois who has come from political nowhere to be touted as a presidential prospect, his face prominent in every news magazine. Should he throw his hat in the ring, Democrats might have to break ground deciding between an African-American (Obama), and a woman (Clinton).
Perhaps the greatest irony of all in this year's election campaign has been the scant attention given to the issue that will have the greatest effect, both domestic and foreign, on most Americans for the next half century. This is their vulnerability to imported energy, notably oil. A blue- ribbon Council on Foreign Relations task force of experts, chaired by former defense and energy secretary James Schlesinger, declared this month that Americans must slow and eventually reverse their consumption of petroleum products. Voices that espouse early energy independence are doing the nation a disservice, the task force argues. The challenge in the next several decades, Mr. Schlesinger said, is to manage the consequences of "unavoidable dependence on oil and gas," while simultaneously beginning the "transition to an economy that relies less on petroleum."
The report warns: "The longer the delay, the greater will be the subsequent trauma." Neglect of this issue by some of the best minds in this year's political debate seems likely only to exacerbate the ultimate trauma.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.