It is now commonplace to lament the absence of “issues” in the presidential campaign.
But in this century no presidential election has been a referendum on issues. Presidential campaigns are ordeals by fire to test leadership and character. No one with any historical memory should count on a presidential candidate doing in office what he proclaims on the campaign trail. No one listening to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 could have imagined the New Deal. Woodrow Wilson, F.D.R. and Lyndon B. Johnson all promised peace while moving toward war.
Now, in the age of television, issues are used in campaigns as props to create an aura of leadership. This is especially true of foreign policy. Contrary to much conventional wisdom, the public in this nuclear age does care deeply about national security. The American people want a leader who will defend the nation and earn the respect of the world.
The real questions have to do with defining American interests and objectives and how to achieve them.
Yet for the candidates, it is easier to look presidential on the deck of an aircraft carrier or at the Berlin Wall than in a cornfield in Iowa. On no set of issues in this campaign has there been more posturing and less substance than on those relating to America’s changing role in the world. George Bush, reacting to the growing concern about the loss of the nation’s competitive position, the failure of its policy in Central America and bloated military spending, proclaims the American Century. Polls show that most Americans know that it is over. Michael Dukakis, seeking the aura of presidential leadership, rides around in a tank.
The position papers on national security of both men would have done nicely for the campaigns of 1984, 1980 and, in some cases, 1960.
Presidential candidates rarely tip their hand about the foreign-policy strategy they intend to pursue in office, even when they have one. But in judging who should lead them, voters ought to be able to catch a glimpse of a candidate’s vision of where the world is heading, some inkling of his understanding of the changes taking place in world politics and in the world economy, and what choices these changes pose for the United States.
There is a new leader in the Soviet Union struggling to establish perestroika in diplomacy, internal politics, the economy and Soviet culture. There is a burst of diplomatic activity, the result of war-weariness in Indochina, the Persian Gulf and Southern Africa. In 1992 an economically integrated Western Europe will take its place as a new kind of superpower. A more assertive Japan is moving into center stage. The world of the 1990s holds out the prospect of possible Soviet-Chinese rapprochement, a continued healing of the economic and cultural division of Europe and a widening gap between the rich nations of North America and Europe and those nations, mostly in Africa and Latin America, facing economic and ecological catastrophe. For the first time in more than 40 years the United Nations is functioning as it was originally intended; the five permanent members of the Security Council have cooperated to bring about the cease-fire in the Iraq-Iran war.
The new President will face this dynamic new world of new opportunities and new dangers. The risk is that the United States will find itself bypassed and isolated if it remains mired in the thinking of the past.
Bush says that the Cold War is not over. He is right. Bureaucrats and intellectuals invested in 40-year-old ideas are still going full steam. Great armies still face each other in the middle of Europe. The arms race continues unabated, except for a welcome but marginal agreement on a single class of nuclear missiles.
But conditions for ending the Cold War exist, and many nations have their own economic and political agenda for seeking a new set of political relationships. Looking at this changing world through the old Cold War lens is to miss what is happening.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan communicated a vision, albeit a distorted one, about where the world was heading. But this year neither candidate has yet sent even a hint to the electorate that he understands why the next decade cannot and will not be a repeat of this one.
No wonder the voters are unenthusiastic. A people yearning for real leadership see two untested men, each with his eyes so fixed on the prize that he will not look at the world about him.