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Mead: Bush Re-election Is 'Catastrophic' Defeat for Democrats

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
November 3, 2004


Walter Russell Mead, a leading analyst of American politics and foreign policy, describes the defeat of nominee John Kerry and his fellow Democrats in the November 2 presidential and legislative elections as “catastrophic” and “astonishing.” Interpreting President Bush’s victory, Mead, the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, observes that “there has been a lot of talk about moral values being the issue that moved a lot of the voters.” But, he adds, “I think moral values include foreign policy as well as domestic policy, in the sense that it includes standing up to terrorists and being a straight-shooter.”

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on November 3, 2004.

What are your first impressions of President Bush’s re-election?

I think it is a catastrophic result for the Democrats. The party lost seats in the Senate, lost seats in the House, did not pick up any governorships. The Senate Minority Leader, [Thomas] Daschle [D-S.D.], lost. And Bush, in the middle of an unpopular war that’s not going particularly well, with the price of oil over $50 a barrel and the most negative drumbeat of stories I can remember about foreign policy, wins with a popular vote majority of 3.5 million. It’s astonishing.

Does this indicate that the pundits were wrong in thinking that foreign policy would play that big a role in the election?

There has been a lot of talk about moral values being the issue that moved a lot of the voters to the polls. But I think moral values include foreign policy as well as domestic policy, in the sense that it includes standing up to terrorists and being a straight-shooter. I think a lot of people perceived that foreign policy was connected to Bush’s domestic policy. So I think it means that voters may not always make the sharp divisions between foreign policy and domestic policy that wonks tend to make.

Even though Kerry won a lot of electoral votes from big states like New York, Illinois, and California, there seems to be a disconnect between the broad mass of voters and the Democratic Party establishment.

Another thing to think about is that the states that the Democrats are winning are states that continue to lose population. If this time Bush had won exactly the same states he won last time, and Kerry won exactly the same states [as Democratic nominee Al Gore won in the 2000 election], Bush’s electoral count would’ve been up by eight because of the redistricting that comes after the census. So six years from now we’ll have another census, and presumably a state like Arizona will gain electoral votes, while states like Massachusetts, New York- it used to be the biggest state in the union, when I was a kid- will continue to lose electoral votes. The power is tilting away from the Democratic establishment, the Democratic parts of the country, to these new places and new people.

At this point, are you able to speculate a bit on Bush’s place in history? He is obviously a strong campaigner.

I think a lot is going to depend on the situation in Iraq. Bush essentially has no excuses now: he has a mandate, he has both houses of Congress, and he is in full control of the foreign policy machinery. The war in Iraq is one that he chose, that he planned, that he has led. Bush is going to look pretty good if even two years from now Iraq is more or less pacified, and there is a government that is at least, in some ways, better than Saddam Hussein, and you have an island of stability in the middle of the Middle East. In retrospect he will look like a visionary, and people will forget all the ups and downs. When people now think of the Mexican War, they think about it as this quick, glorious dash. But in fact [President James] Polk had terrible problems during the Mexican War [1846-1848].

You mean politically, at home?

Yes. Politically, at home, there were questions like, “Will those Mexicans ever negotiate?” “Are we stuck in this quagmire?” And this was a war that ended with the United States getting a whole lot of territory. Likewise, if you think about the Filipino insurrection after the Spanish-American War, I think we lost significantly more troops in suppressing that insurrection than we did in the Iraq war. [American casualties in the Filipino guerrilla war are estimated at 4,000 killed and 3,000 wounded]. What’s interesting is that by 1910, even people like Teddy Roosevelt, who himself was an arch-imperialist, were saying that it was a strategic mistake to take the Philippines because it gave us an Achilles heel exposed to Japan. So here you have a war with thousands of U.S. casualties to capture a place that we then basically spent the next 30 years trying to figure out how to get rid of. Yet nobody who supported that war ever paid a political price, and everybody who opposed the war paid a political price. And conceivably, if the war in Iraq goes even reasonably well, Bush looks good.

You’ve spent some time with Vice President Dick Cheney this fall. Do you think Cheney’s role will change in the second Bush term?

I certainly see no signs of it. Cheney is of formidable intelligence. People talk of how Bush is “misunderestimated;” I think Cheney is “misunderestimated.” There was this assumption that [the Democrat’s vice presidential nominee] John Edwards- young and charismatic- would wipe the floor with Cheney in the debate, but most people agree that that was the debate that went the best for Bush-Cheney. That’s just like the way Cheney defeated [Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator] Joe Lieberman, I think, pretty soundly, in 2000. Cheney is a very good retail campaigner. He knows how to work a crowd. He was elected five times to Congress from the state of Wyoming. And Wyoming, with a very small population, is one of those states where politics is still very local. Cheney is probably much more instinctively in touch with so-called ordinary American thinking than a lot of people on the Democratic side, or even the Republican side, who are functioning on his level in national politics.

On foreign policy, I think it’s going to be very interesting. Are Bush and Cheney going to take on board the lessons of the problems they’ve had in the last few years and modify their approach? Or are they going to say, “Even with all of this trouble, we’ve increased our popular majority, we’ve increased our votes in the Senate, more of the same, full speed ahead”?

People like Bush adviser Karen Hughes have said that Bush wants reconciliation. I wonder if this reconciliation would extend to Europe. Clearly, the president has to realize that he probably made a mistake in how he dealt with the Europeans in the run-up to the war and its aftermath.

I’m not sure he thinks that, in quite that way. It looks to me like France doesn’t want reconciliation with the United States. [French President Jacques] Chirac denounced global Americanization on a trip to Beijing in October. That’s not the way you signal to the United States that you want to come closer to them. But that’s something that a French president seems to do. Look at Chirac’s, and to some degree [German Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder’s, situation. Both of them are going to have to “Americanize” their economies over the next few years. They are going to have to increase working hours, to cut state pensions, and to introduce more market-oriented reforms. These are all deeply unpopular measures. And it probably helps if you carry out domestic restructuring to be anti-American on some political level, even as you are making your countries more like America.

So you don’t expect any dramatic change?

I would say that change would come only after elections in Germany and France. Germany’s are by 2006. Schroeder has been doing very poorly in the polls, although recently he’s done better. Schroeder’s foreign policy is very troubling. German society is not willing to do any of the things that it needs to do in terms of accepting reforms. Unification has been terrible for them, socially and economically. The east isn’t willing to give up the benefits that it’s getting, and no one is willing to revisit some of the issues that would have to be revisited. What Schroeder is doing, as a leader who can’t get domestic results, is to look for “prestige victories” in international politics. At the Nice summit of the European Union, he forced the French to give the Germans more deputies in the European Parliament. This is something that no previous German leader would’ve tried to do. But he needs to show something, for his prestige. [That is similar to Germany’s] campaign for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. He’s like Kaiser Wilhelm II, who faced domestic impasses and hoped to raise the country’s prestige in World War I. Now, it’s not as dangerous, but it is actually bad news for Germany when Schroeder tries to seek prestige, and that is what he is doing.

Concerning the second Bush term, do you believe that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will move on?

It depends on what job she’s offered. If the president of the United States asks you to be secretary of state, it’s very hard to say no. Even if you don’t want the job, it’s very hard to say no.

Would you consider Secretary of State Colin Powell one of the disappointments of this administration?

I think he’s probably disappointed as he looks back at his record, but I think there are a number of things that he can take great pride in. One was working to rebuild the morale of the State Department. When I talk to a lot of the career people in the State Department, they feel that he has taken the institution seriously, and that it’s being managed well. Some very talented people in the career service are being given real opportunities to serve their country.

The management of the State Department in the Clinton years was not viewed- even by people who were policy-sympathetic to Clinton- they didn’t like the way Madeleine Albright ran the State Department. In managing a big bureaucracy, [Powell] has done well. I think history will say that there were places where Powell was urging more caution, when there were a couple of times when Powell was urging one thing and Cheney or [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld were urging another, if Bush had listened a couple more times to Powell, maybe he’d be a happier man today and this majority would’ve been bigger.

Also, I think the fact that he had flawed intelligence in the speech he gave to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003 [on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction] is not something you want to be your signature moment as secretary of state, even though he bears no personal responsibility or guilt for that. To some degree, it’s going to be hard for history to forget that.

What will Bush do about CIA reform with big majorities in both houses of Congress?

Whatever he wants. I think he will have much more of a free hand. There is a possibility that the Republican Party in the House and Senate will be a little bit less cohesive. The day you become re-elected to your second term is when you become a lame duck. Republican politics now does start to begin to be about 2008.

We’re all sick of campaigning and sick of elections, but here you have Cheney, who is probably too old to run. This will be the first time in a long time there is no designated heir. So does Bush give someone the dedazo, as they say in Mexico, and say, “This is my anointed heir, go and support him,” in which case power begins to flow from Bush to the other guy? Or does he say that it is up to the party to choose the next president, in which case factions- such as those led by [Senator John] McCain [of Arizona], [former New York Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani, [Senate Majority Leader Bill] Frist [of Tennessee]--with their personal agendas emerge. But it’s also true that a lot of people in the Republican Party are very uncomfortable with the neoconservative neo-Wilsonianism of the Bush administration. They are traditionally skeptical of democracy in foreign countries and international entanglements. So you may start seeing more Republican resistance to the most visionary and sweeping elements of Bush’s foreign policy approach.

Will the neocons still be around?

People are speculating whether Rumsfeld will step down as defense secretary. That’ll be interesting. If Condoleezza Rice goes into politics, to the private sector, back to academia, or to the State or Defense Department, does [Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz replace her as national security adviser? Wolfowitz would have a very hard time getting confirmed by the Senate and would face some very tough grilling. [National security adviser] is the most senior post that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. Wolfowitz and Cheney have a very good working relationship, and that’s an important thing for a national security adviser to have at this point.