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Loathe the One You’re With

Remember the mood just six or eight months ago? President Bush seemed like a sure winner in his bid for re-election. Howard Dean was all the rage, with his unprecedented and extraordinarily successful fund raising via the Internet and his blunt challenge to the incumbent — but hardly anyone thought that in a Dean-Bush competition, the ex-governor of Vermont would prevail.

The polls these days say it’s neck and neck. And while no one can, with any confidence, predict what conditions will be like in Iraq 90 days from now, nor the damage that terrorists may try and perhaps succeed in doing, the president who once seemed invulnerable now slips in virtually every measure of public confidence. And slowly, the Kerry-Edwards campaign seems to be gaining traction.

Campaigns in almost every field of endeavor begin with the fatuous slogan, “Now more than ever.” The assertion that the upcoming election is the most fateful of all sounds tired, just another part of the quadrennial bloat, and we are quite right to suspect that it is no more than that.

Usually. This time around, though, it has the ring of truth. When George W. Bush ran in 2000 on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” and with a record as a governor who’d often reached across the partisan aisle, we could not have known quite how single-mindedly he would deviate from compassion, from conservatism, from bridge-building — how sharp a turn from mainstream American politics he would maneuver. And in fact, without 9/11 as his galvanizing moment, he might well have drifted through his allotted four years without much noise.

But now, even as the lies and spin settle in like a miasmic fog, the truth emerges: The reelection of Bush to the presidency will, if it happens, mark a divide in American history such that future historians will tell the story of the United States in chapters that go from our nation’s founding up to Abraham Lincoln, from Lincoln to this Bush, and from this Bush onward — or, more properly, downward.

It is not just what might happen if Bush has his way with the Supreme Court in a second term, though that alone would merit a dayenu. Nor is Bush’s apparent indifference to the record-setting deficits, caused by the tax cuts he seeks to make permanent, the whole of it — although here, too, dayenu. It is not the unnecessary war in Iraq or the inadequate investment in homeland security or the ill-conceived intervention in public education, nor even the disposition to outsource government itself by privatizing schools, Social Security, health care, anything that is not nailed down — and much that is. To all these, dayenu and then some: They would have been enough and more than enough to generate the anger and contempt that many feel toward him.

But there is more than all that. There is the company Bush keeps. It is a mistake to think Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld are incompetent. Alas, they know what they are doing — except, ironically, as it relates to our nation’s security. They and their Cabinet colleagues are engaged in a demolition derby, each in his or her own way competing to see how quickly and how cleverly he/she can redefine the purposes of politics. (In this company, Colin Powell is truly odd man out, a near anachronism, a reminder of the pokey centrist tradition of the American political system.) As for national security, $144 billion on Iraq later, even when that security is measured by their own constricted definition, they are frightening failures. Obviously, their definition does not begin to be adequate.

Consider: The gap between the highest and lowest income households in Washington — we’re talking income, not wealth — is 30 to 1. That is, the bottom fifth in Washington have an average annual income of $6,126 ,while the top fifth bring home an average of $186,830. In New York City, the ratio is 28 to 1 and in Boston it’s 25 to 1. These kinds of numbers no longer shock most of us; we’re aware that income disparities in the United States are at record levels.

The question is whether anyone in the Bush administration even cares, ever thinks, about what this means for us as a nation. If there is anyone who does, who experiences more than vague distaste when his limousine makes a wrong turn and he finds himself, ever so briefly, driving through Washington’s extensive zones of poverty, he has kept his concern a secret. Poverty and gross inequality on our national agenda? No, tax cuts for the wealthy and no-bid contracts for the friends and sponsors are what we are about these days , and unapologetically.

There is something sinister in the fundamental cynicism of the Bush administration. No to stem cell research, no to a serious response to the prescription drug crisis, no to the threats to our civil liberties inherent in the Patriot Act, no — until lately, and in desperation — to the United Nations, no to the wall of separation between church and state. Add these no’s together, mix with utter indifference to the many millions of Americans who are struggling to get by — whose personal sense of security is eroding as they are pink-slipped into unemployment or into a low-paying job — and still no emergency is perceived, no alert announced.

That is why, slowly, voters are coming to realize that you don’t have to love John Kerry in order to loathe George W. Bush. It is too early for a confident prediction, and may remain too early until late October, but don’t be surprised if in the end, it is Kerry/Edwards in a landslide.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

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