Reflections on the Upcoming 2004 Presidential Election

E.J. Dionne, Brookings Institute
Elaine Kamarck, Harvard University
Moderated by Alan Wolfe, Director of the Boisi Center

Date: April 26, 2004

Event Recap

A panel consisting of E.J. Dionne, columnist for the Washington Post, and Elaine Kamarck, former domestic policy adviser to Al Gore, was moderated by Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center on the evening of April 26th in the Jenks Honors Library to discuss the role of religion and morality in the upcoming Presidential election.

Kamarck believes that the upcoming election will revolve largely around issues related to the war in Iraq and foreign policy. The central question the electorate will be deciding in her view is “How will the US use its power in the world?” She characterized Bush as believing that, “We use it [power] unilaterally to do what we want.” She characterized Kerry’s position as, “Yes, we can beat people; the question is how do we mobilize global society to see the world the way we see it?” Since foreign policy is such a central issue in this election, and the power for for eign policy is so concentrated in the office of the President, Kamarck believes that voters will vote for the person whom they feel can best serve them as a global leader.

Dionne placed more focus on the domestic agenda in his remarks. He was critical of what he saw as a conceptual narrowing of ideas in political discussion. He believes that we now use market language to discuss almost everything and consequently frame both questions and answers to social problems too narrowly. Instead of talking about the necessity of “immunizing little children against disease” as a social good, we now discuss it in terms of “making investments in human capital.” He argued that this move towards an economic rhetoric reflects the liberal reluctance to discuss issues on moral grounds and to say whether they believe something is right or wrong. The problem with this reluctance, Dionne argues, is that if the only way you can argue for the poor is using a market rationale, then your argument is vulnerable to any study that claims that serving the poor is inefficient. He would like to see a broadening of the moral discourse in the political realm.

This theme was picked up by students in the audience who were frustrated that political conservatives seem to have cornered the market on God talk and observed that democrats seem to be very uncomfortable discussing God and morality. Students also expressed concerns about the war in Iraq, whether or not the draft would be re-instituted, and how America’s foreign policy would affect their futures.