AS THE QUADRENNIAL ritual of electing a president begins in earnest this month, it's interesting to recall the way the last one ended.
The closest election in presidential history - a virtual tie broken weeks after the election by the Supreme Court - was waged almost entirely over a narrow slicing of domestic issues.
Both candidates promised to cut taxes, add a drug benefit to Medicare and modernize Social Security. (Remember the "lock box"?) They diverged most sharply on the innuendoes suggested by their deal-closer lines. George W. Bush spoke of restoring integrity and personal responsibility to the White House, implying it had been sullied by President Bill Clinton's sexual antics. Mr. Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, offered thinly veiled warnings that Mr. Bush was little more than a daddy's boy, and none too bright.
Those were the good old days. A time of ignorance, decadence and naivete. A time before 9/11/01, before Orange Alerts, before SARS and before Mad Cow Disease hit the homeland. The bottom had not dropped out of the dot-com stock market; widespread corporate corruption was not yet revealed. Millions still had the jobs and pensions they would later lose as a result of those two developments.
What we need today is a president who is not just smart, honest and socially concerned, but one who is capable of leading a nation coping with fear. Anxiety has become a constant of daily life - some of it focused on specific threats, such as terrorist attacks or plant layoffs, and some of it part of a climate of fear that can set off a sudden run on flu shots or persuade innocent citizens to surrender civil liberties in the hope of greater security.
President Bush's record has been mixed enough to warrant a challenge. His cocky confidence is at once reassuring and troubling. Many Americans are skeptical about his doctrine of pre-emptive military strikes, which resulted in the costly and increasingly lethal takeover of Iraq. Mr. Bush's boldly huge tax cuts combined with wartime and domestic security spending have left a legacy of deficits and debt that may take a generation or more to repay.
The president joined forces with Democrats to keep his promises on Medicare and education reforms. He failed, though, to make good on his claim to be "a uniter, not a divider." A narrow Republican majority in Congress has all but muscled Democrats out of the process. And the country at large is even more passionately split than it was four years ago - particularly in its response to Mr. Bush. Americans tend to love him or hate him, with not much ambivalence in between.
But while the 2004 election will inevitably be a referendum on President Bush, the Democratic challenger won't hold much appeal for the shrinking band of swing voters in the center if the message is all negative.
This is a vast, powerful nation with enormous resources and a richly diverse population. The elegantly crafted structure of our democracy consistently foils attempts to subvert it. Americans are grounded in a fundamental optimism that promises that anybody who tries hard enough can accomplish anything here.
An attractive alternative to Mr. Bush must offer a positive, competing vision for dealing with the enormous challenges ahead. Among the key issues:
Use of the U.S. military: Was the Iraq strike wrong on policy, planning, execution, or all of the above? What should be the predicate for U.S. intervention in the future? What should be the ground rules for moving unilaterally? In the meantime, how does the United States manage the situation in Iraq and shape a realistic exit strategy?
Diplomacy: How much do allies count? How much do countries that aren't allies count? To what extent can the United States pursue its interests abroad without resorting to force?
Homeland security: A government function that didn't formally exist four years ago, its implementation is still clumsy and ill-defined. The pendulum swings wildly from overreaction to casual cluelessness. What precautions offer true protection without needless sacrifice of personal freedoms? How can the warning process be refined to be more effective?
Federal budget: With the annual deficit projected to hit $500 billion, it's time to start talking again about putting the country back on a glide path to balance. What's the best combination of spending cuts and/or tax increases to get there?