Changing Warhorses in Midstream

Michael Barone’s LA Times op-ed, Changing Warhorses in Midstream” makes a rather dramatic comparison:

Consider the presidential election of 1864. The defeat of the incumbent, Abraham Lincoln, would have made an enormous difference. Union casualties were heavy throughout the year. It was widely expected that Gen. George McClellan, ousted from heading the Union army by Lincoln in 1862, would be the Democratic nominee and that he would win. Lincoln was renominated by the Republican National Convention in June, but through September many prominent Republicans were plotting to choose another nominee. Lincoln clearly stood for continued prosecution of the war, and the Republican platform came out strongly for the abolition of slavery. The Democrats were united around McClellan at their August convention but divided on policy. The Copperhead wing of the party wanted immediate peace, and it managed to write the party platform.

Is the 2004 election as consequential as the election of 1864? The answer to that question depends on what you think John Kerry’s military and foreign policy would be, and there is room for thinking many things.


There is something to say for Mead’s argument, but I take a different view. Bush, in his formal National Security Strategy statement and in his actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, has transformed U.S. foreign policy more than any president since Truman. The very violence of Kerry’s denunciations of Bush; his contempt for the president, which he makes no effort to conceal; the suggestion that America under Bush is totally isolated from the world — these positions will have consequences. They affect what other nations and what the terrorists think the U.S. will do and thus have a role in determining how they will act.

Moreover, Kerry will be the nominee of a party that is split as much as McClellan’s was. About half of Democrats favor the Iraq war and about half are against. Pollster Scott Rasmussen recently reported that 62% of Americans agreed that the world would be a better place if other countries became more like the United States, while only 14% believed it would be a worse place. But there is a big difference between Republicans and Democrats. Fully 81% of Bush voters but only 48% of Kerry voters agreed with the statement.

The next four years are likely to present unforeseen challenges, and the difference between Bush and Kerry, although not as great as that between Lincoln and McClellan, will probably be greater than the differences between candidates in the wartime elections of the 20th century. Throwing out this president would make a difference.

As even occasional readers know, I prefer Bush over Kerry in this election. I’m not, however, sure that the “don’t change horse in mid-stream” argument is particularly helpful to Bush in this case. Ronald Reagan used it quite successfully in 1984, but then his policies were quite popular. He used it again in 1988, urging the election of his Vice President, saying, “But when you have to change horses in midstream, doesn’t it make sense to switch to the one who’s going the same way?” But the polls clearly show an ambivalence toward Bush’s policies and the current direction of travel.

Rhetorically, there’s not much difference between Bush and Kerry on Iraq. Both want to finish what we started. Pretty clearly, though, a President Kerry wouldn’t have initiated this war–which may or may not earn him points with the electorate at this stage; how it will play out by November is unknowable at this stage, given how much in flux the Iraq situation is.

More importantly, though, in assessing Barone’s thesis, is the fact that Bush and Kerry have fundamentally different views on the war on terrorism. The Bush policy is much more aggressive–a literal rather than a figurative war–than we’d likely see under Kerry. Ultimately, though, we have to speculate on what Kerry would do since he’s been incredibly vague, preferring to criticize the Bush policy without arguing a concrete alternative.

UPDATE: More thoughts here.

UPDATE II: I essentially agree with Kevin Drum on the strained nature of the Bush-Lincoln comparison. I was going to write about that when I first read the subtitle of Barone’s piece, but I got sidetracked by the substance of the Bush-Kerry difference and the tactical issues.

One could plausibly argue that the terrorist threat is comparable to that of secession, I suppose, but the Bush-Kerry gap is smaller than that seen in several other wartime elections–Nixon-McGovern as the most obvious ferinstance.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tom Maguire says:

    …we have to speculate on what Kerry would do since he’s been incredibly vague, preferring to criticize the Bush policy without arguing a concrete alternative.

    Almost anything he says (other than Bush-bashing) is likely to annoy some part of his Anybody But Bush coalition.