What Will the Election "Prove"?
Conventional wisdom holds, and I generally agree, that the election is a referendum on George Bush's presidency. From a purely political point of view, then, it doesn't matter that John Kerry's positions are, shall we say, ambiguous. Voters are simply picking between "Bush" and "Not Bush." If Kerry wins, he won't have a mandate for any particular policies of his own, only not to be Bush.
By selecting points of distinction, Kerry's campaign does, however, largely define what "Bush" and "Not Bush" mean. The election isn't a referendum on Bush's wetlands policies or his view of U.S.-Mexico relations. Nor is it about such hot-button issues as immigration or gay marriage, for the simple reason that John Kerry hasn't made a big deal of these topics and has generally sought to blur any distinctions between himself and Bush.
It's primarily about three questions, in order of priority:
1) Does George Bush have the right temperament to be president? Is he a strong, decisive leader? Or is he close-minded and afraid to listen to disagreements or admit mistakes? Is he a focused manager who chooses his priorities and sticks to them? Or is he a dimwit who can't keep up with more than a few issues? Is his religious faith a plus or a minus? Is he too confrontational at home and abroad? Does he give you the creeps? That last question may be the most important of all.
2) Is the war in Iraq right or wrong? You can complicate this question by adding nuances about exit strategies, troop levels, or the broader strategy of preemptive attack. But those nuances won't decide the election, nor will they be the focus of post-election analysis.
3) Is Bush too friendly to corporations and rich people? Contrary to what you might think from reading some libertarian-leaning bloggers, John Kerry is not running against George Bush's extravagant new Medicare entitlement or his expansive domestic spending. He is running against "tax cuts for the rich" and prescription drugs without price controls. Voting for "Not Bush" means voting for "not enough domestic spending" and "not enough taxes on the rich."
By this reasoning, a Bush victory will be interpreted as public approval (a majority's, at least) of his executive style and personality, of the war in Iraq, and of his economic policies, particularly the tax cuts. A Kerry victory will be interpreted as public rejection of Bush's temperament, of the war in Iraq, and of his tax cuts and of his pro-business (and in some cases pro-market) policies.