What if John Kerry had won?

by on September 4, 2009 at 5:44 am in Political Science | Permalink

A loyal MR reader writes to me:

I love when you think through counterfactuals, so here’s
one that’s been on my mind.  Imagine John Kerry wins in 2004.  What are
the implications for the 2006 midterms and more importantly the 2008
presidential election?  We probably pull out of Iraq without ever attempting the
surge, and leave the country in chaos.  But more importantly, the housing
bubble collapses on a Democrat's watch, not [a] Republican's.  Regardless of what
anyone says, the housing bubble was going to burst.  Maybe the collapse takes a
different path under Kerry than Bush, but it still happens, leaving his administration
to deal with it.  Does he win re-election?  Is McCain still the Republican
candidate?  And what becomes of a little known back bencher named Barack Obama?

I am sorry to disappoint such an excellent reader but I genuinely do not know what would have happened, if say Kerry had been more personally appealing to more voters (that counterfactual more or less holds constant other factors which are more directly political).  I do know this is a reason why I think it is very hard to forecast the net impact of a single election.  Do you remember the furor and then the agony from 2004?

Brian Moore September 4, 2009 at 10:58 am

I don’t think a Kerry election would’ve had major changes on our Iraq policy. It would’ve had major changes to our Iraq propaganda. Same for the housing bubble. Things would’ve basically gone the same, there just would’ve been a slightly different story.

Same thing with a Gore victory in 2000. We’d just be debating something like Waxman-Markey in 2001, and then promptly forgotten about it and invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.

For the 2 events that the reader describes, Republicans and Democrats are largely similar over history on issues of foreign wars and intervention during times of economic crisis: yes and yes. They also extensively blame the other for anything bad that happens during those 2 types of events. Sure, there’d be some difference as each president nominated some different expert to chart the path, but both a Kerry 04-08 presidency and a Bush 04-08 presidency would look very similar to a historian in 2050 or so.

You know, once we invent some dimension-hopping time travel device.

Rama September 4, 2009 at 12:26 pm

@ Mattmc

Good point ; let’s have more $urges.

Tom September 4, 2009 at 1:29 pm

“Brian Moore misses the key fact that a Gore election very possibly leads to the prevention of the 9/11 attacks.”

Except they had they previous 8 years to do something about Bin Laden and chose not to.

And no, there was no new, actionable intel that Bush had that the previous administration didn’t.

Christian September 4, 2009 at 3:02 pm

If 2000 was different:

*We would have had at least 2 different SC Justices, which would be a significantly different court.

*9/11 may have happened, although I do not think this is reflection on the Clinton Administration — they took it much more seriously than Bush did prior to the attacks. The response would probably have been better. Afghanistan, but not Iraq.

*The Housing Bubble may have been different because Gore may not have reappointed Greenspan and there would be governors and regulators who took regulation more seriously.

*9/11 would have probably added Democratic seats to both houses

Tomasz Wegrzanowski September 4, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Gore win would mean no Iraq War, so even if Afghanistan war happened it would be much more likely to succeed.

And most likely no massive tax cuts for the rich, and less deregulation, so we would be having just a garden variety recession when the housing bubble burst, instead of what we have now.

It’s harder to think what Kerry might have done better than Bush, Bush did most of the damage already during his first term.

mulp September 4, 2009 at 7:48 pm

If Gore had won, we wouldn’t have had the 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008 deficit generating, job killing, bubble producing tax cuts, so the budget would be far better off today, and the debt even given recession of some sort, a small share of GDP.

Obviously no Iraq war, and likely the Republicans would have been as enthusiastic about invading Afghanistan as they were about war in Afghanistan in the 80s and 90s, and as mixed as they were about Kosovo.

Given the growth with the Clinton tax policies, the economy would have performed better. And Gore would have used 9/11 if it happened, (and it might not have because all the information needed to prevent it existed of the departments talked to each other), plus the rising price oil, plus Katrina, plus the wildfires, plus the need for a new technology industry to drive the economy to win incremental tax incentives for R&D in general and wind, solar, grid, geothermal, even nuclear.

And if the economy was sluggish, he would have pushed incremental projects like electric cars, fuel cell, high speed rail, to create jobs, again with tax incentives.

If it were Kerry in 2005, then conservatives would have turned surrender monkeys forcing more rapid cuts in Iraq and Afghanistan and we’d be back to a sort of over watch on two Afghanistans.

But the budget deficit would spur conservative attacks, so the tax cuts of 2006 and 2008 wouldn’t have happened, he might have gotten Paygo which would have forced tax cuts to be frozen or even rescinded. Credit regulation would have been stronger and the worst damage of 2005,6,7 might not have happened.

High oil prices might have won tax cuts targeted at sustainable energy projects, conservatives going along just to get tax cuts.

It is clear that conservatives for the most part will sell their souls for tax cuts, and tax cuts just invoke a Pavlovian response. If one had any question about the efficacy of tax cuts, the past decade should eliminate all faith in tax cuts having any benefit to the nation’s general welfare.

MAWC September 5, 2009 at 12:37 am

If Senator Kerry had won the 2004 election, this country would not be in th mess it is in today-ecconomically,security, and leadershop wise.

anonymous September 5, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Who knows what Kerry really would have done (as opposed to what we imagine he might have done)?

Arguably, the Obama presidency so far has not quite been everything that Obama supporters had expected (more continuity with the previous administration and less radical departure). And for that matter, Bush 43 didn’t really deliver much of what evangelical Christians or small-government conservatives were hoping for either.

One interesting possibility: vice-president John Edwards resigns due to a sex scandal, so Kerry appoints a new VP: Barack Obama. Pundits hail the historic breakthrough of an African-American vice president and dare to imagine the radical possibility of an African-American president in 2012.

Ed September 8, 2009 at 3:17 pm

One of Kerry’s major problems during the campaign was a tendency to seem to be on both sides of an issue (though this helped him in the primaries!), to the extent that it is really hard to tell what he believes. This makes predicting a Kerry presidency difficult.

This is also true with Gore, during his career he has moved to the right of most other Democratic politicians, than to the left. Even with Dubya there is a pretty big gap in some of his public statements and his approach to governing in Texas prior to November 2000 and afterwards.

We’ve evolved a system where the public just doesn’t get very reliable information before the election on what the candidates are going to do in office. Its too easy to campaign on one platform and govern on another. Hence the obsession with “character”, you just can’t trust the candidates’ statements on the issues.

There is also the matter of whether the Democrats get majorities in Congress in this counterfactual, which is important.

My best guess is that a Kerry administration would have handled Katrina better (it could hardly have been handled worse), though you can incorporate Katrina into the counterfactual by moving it up one year and getting Kerry elected in the first place. The policies on the bubble/ bailout would have been the same, there seems to be a bipartisan consensus in favor. His policies on Iraq and Afghanistan would look alot like Obama’s present policies. There wouldn’t have been the failed attempt at privatizing social security, there might have been a failed attempt to de-privatize parts of the health care system. You would have had two justices more like Breyer to replace Rehnquist and O’Connor, assuming the Democrats control the Senate. But note that evangelical Christians got nothing from the Bush administration or his judicial appointments.

karenc September 10, 2009 at 10:12 pm

I think nearly everything written here ignores everything Kerry said of diplomacy since 1966, when he was a student at Yale. Remember Kerry ended his 1971 speech with the hope that Vietnam would be the point where US foreign policy turned. In 1966, in 1971, and as a Senator, there are many speeches he has given on foreign policy. Unlike most of our Presidents, Kerry would have had a personal well defined foreign policy point of view – one that stressed understanding the cultures of others – when he become President. In addition, in 2004, 2005 and 2006, Kerry offered detailed plans of what he thought should have been done.

Kerry was actually very consistent on what he would do on Iraq. He said every day in 2004 that as soon as elected, he would start to set up a Regional summit to help Iraq address the political problems that are still not resolved – as of today per Ambassador Hill in testimony before the SFRC. He also would have internationalized the effort. In 2004, that idea was derided as impossible. However, in Kerry’s trips for the SFRC in late 2004 and early 2005, Egypt, Jordan, France and Germany all committed to training Iraqi troops in their countries – Kerry spoke of this to Dr Rice at her confirmation hearing. She curtly said that the training was going well – even though at today’s SFRC hearing, there was STILL talk of training Iraqis!

Remember that Kerry in 2004, also spoke in the first debate of no permanent bases and spoke of the danger of it becoming an occupation. Kerry would have emphasized diplomacy and giving the various Iraqi groups vested interests in their country functioning. These actions at that time could have avoided Iraq moving to hotter civil war that occurred in 2006. We likely would have started to withdraw faster – starting in 2005. (Not to mention – even in 2005, Kerry called for pulling the troops out of urban centers – something Obama did earlier this year.)

Kerry likely would have put more emphasis on Afghanistan earlier when the US was seen as better than it is now. From what he said in 2004, he would have greatly increased the use of intelligence and coordination with other countries and special forces to go after Al Quaida. Simultaneously, he likely would have worked to provide aid to the people Afghanistan to rebuild there country, and to help their farmers with alternative crops to minimize the cultivation of poppies which fund the Taleban. (Remember in the 1990s, Kerry investigated BCCI and earlier had fought Reagan on letting the Contras bring cocaine into the country.

I think by 2008, we would have been out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, Kerry would have used the opportunity of Abbas replacing Arafat to make progress on the middle east – something he begged Bush to do. This could have avoided the bombing in Gaza and Lebanon.

In 2007, Kerry went to the Bali environmental conference. A member of the Bush team at an April 22, 2008 SFRC hearing credited Kerry saying that his work before and at Bali was essential to them getting the agreement they did – imagine what a President Kerry could have done. Kerry also would have reversed all the EPA changes Bush made via executive order. As others said Kerry would have done far better on Katerina and been seen as attentive.

On the housing crisis, Kerry would have had an SEC head who was not Cox, who would have regulated more and likely reduced the leverage allowed (In 2004 it was raised to 1:45 from a norm of 1:12.) Kerry had a plank in his platform that called for the end of balloon loans and other shaky mortgages. In addition, in 2006, Kerry was one of the first to push for doing something on foreclosures. But, it is true that the housing bubble and everything that went into it was going to bust.

Compared to where we were in January 2008, a Kerry Presidency would have put us in a better place. Fro Kerry, it would have been a very tough time. My guess is that the many crises – with Kerry really leading – would have created a bond between him and the country and he would have been re-elected. Even if that didn’t happen, he would in reality have done a huge amount to make the world better. If you look over his career, that is more important to him than being popular.

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