THE 2004 presidential election will be the biggest in at least a generation. Perhaps more. The choice between Bush and Dean/Kerry/Hillary (to list Democrats in the order of their chance to become the nominee) will be the starkest since Reagan-Mondale in 1984. More will be at stake in terms of the direction of the country than in any election since 1980, or perhaps since 1964. After the last decade's noticeably smaller elections, in terms both of starkness of choice and magnitude of consequence, 2004 will be the real thing.
Let's start with foreign policy. The Bush administration's response to September 11 was ambitious and unambiguous. It seemed to have bipartisan support for a while. No longer. Bush's Democratic opponent in 2004 looks likely to oppose fundamentally the Bush Doctrine and its most prominent instantiation so far, the war in Iraq. So we will have a Reagan-Mondale degree of difference on foreign policy, made more consequential by the fact that we are at the genesis of a new foreign policy era. The implications of September 11 for American foreign policy, the basic choices as to America's role in the world, will be on the table. They will not be resolved in November 2004 once and for all--things never are. But they may well be resolved for a generation.
At home, the entire federal judiciary is at stake. Again, it's not that every Bush appointee will be a Scalia, or every Democrat a Souter (oops)--but no one doubts that the (unfortunately) ever more powerful courts will look radically different by 2008 if Bush or a Democrat is president. Indeed, in thinking of the judiciary, one is reminded of the court-packing effort following the election of 1936. Issues of the size and role of government will of course be nowhere near so dramatically posed in 2004 as they were then--though the contrast between a Bush administration proud of its tax cuts and a Democratic opponent pledged to roll many of them back is not trivial.
But even more striking is the divide over social and cultural issues. Bush is no aggressive culture warrior. But he is pretty unambiguously on the pro-life, anti-gay-marriage, worried-about-Brave-New-World, pro-religion-in-the-public-sphere side of the culture divide. The Democratic candidate is likely to pretty unambiguously embody a secular, progressivist, liberationist worldview. The partisan divide between religious and secular voters has been growing, and in 2004 it might well be the widest in modern American history. The losing side won't surrender, and the winner won't have an entirely free hand to make policy. But who wins will matter a lot.
In addition, Bush will be only the third incumbent in 60 years running for election with his party having controlled Congress the previous two years. Such reelections tend to be major referenda on the direction of the country. Carter ran in 1980 and lost badly, and Democrats lost the Senate for the first time in a generation, as well as working control of the House. When Johnson won big in 1964, he swept in Democrats all down the ticket. And the policy changes that followed both elections were, to say the least, significant.
Imagine the two most likely outcomes in 2004: a Bush victory, almost certainly accompanied by increased GOP majorities in both houses of Congress, and by a pickup of gubernatorial and legislative seats, leaving Republicans as the true governing party for the first time since the New Deal; and a Bush defeat, which would mean that the Democrat would have received more votes than the Republican in four straight presidential elections. In the latter case, even if the GOP hung onto majorities in Congress, moderate Republicans would suddenly be interested in working with a Democratic president, and bitter fights would emerge among Republicans and conservatives, rather than among liberals and Democrats.
So: the Bush doctrine abroad, a moderately conservative judiciary at home, an administration putting its thumb (however gingerly) on the conservative side of the scale in the culture wars. Or a Dean-Kerry doctrine abroad, an ever more liberal and activist judiciary, and the most culturally left-wing Democratic administration in 40 years.
The stakes could hardly be higher.
William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard.