Both Party conventions are now history and Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry have mobilized campaigns to energize ideological bases and gain the commitment of voters, especially those undecided about who is the right man to lead the country for the next four years.
The country is as divided as it was at the beginning of George W. Bushs presidency after his victory in a controversial and agonizingly close election. Any aspiration he might have held to heal the partisan division deeply rooted in the American body politic has eluded him. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the economic doldrums in which the country has wallowed over the past four years have hardened opinions for and against George Bush and the upcoming elections are now seen as a toss-up.
There will be no presidential rallies in San Juan, Ponce or Arecibo, because Puerto Rico will not participate in that election on November 2, 2004, but the priorities of each candidate and commitments made during their campaigns are of overriding importance to the island. The federal government policies that one of them will manage for the next four years will affect the lives of 3.9 million American citizens living between Fajardo and Mayaguez.
The long and increasingly acrimonious presidential campaign seems to have reduced itself to two overriding issues -- the economy and terrorism -- and to a single question, "Who is the better candidate to manage both?" The Democrats are stressing the former, while the Republicans, the latter.
The economy looms as an overriding issue for voters, usually expressed in terms of jobs, taxes, and federal funds available for urgent national needs. "Quality of life" issues, such as poverty, health care and education, revolve around the economys condition and its capacity for growth. Bush and the Republicans say that they inherited an economy in recession and have turned it around. Kerry and the Democrats say that Bush has made the wrong economic choices for four years, by rewarding industries for moving jobs off-shore and by pushing tax cuts that favor the top earning 2% of the population and doing little to help the majority middle class.
Jobs, the lack of them, the rate at which they are growing, their quality and the salaries that they pay will be a deciding factor in the choice of a President, especially in states where there have been massive job losses due to the "outsourcing" of manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries such as China. George Bush says that job creation is on the increase, while John Kerry retorts that job growth is not nearly enough to compensate for the massive losses since 2000 and that the jobs being created pay some $9,000.00 less than those lost. Kerry reminds voters that George Bush will be the first president since 1932 to face reelection without creating a net increase in jobs.
At the beginning of this week, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported that this years federal deficit will reach a record $422 billion, an announcement that immediately energized presidential campaign rhetoric. With federal spending at a record $2.3 trillion, the government is now borrowing one dollar for every five that it spends. Down the road, such fiscal policy could mean drastic future cuts in "entitlement programs" such Medicare and Social Security retirement payments, especially when "baby boomers" those Americans born during the U.S. countrys explosion of births between 1945 and 1960 retire and apply for benefits.
Democrats on the campaign trail criticized President Bush for squandering the large budget surplus that he inherited from the Clinton administration and precipitating a record deficit by initiating unwarranted tax cuts and by profligate spending on an unnecessary war in Iraq. Republicans, however, stressed that, since the forecast was some 50 billion under what had been predicted six months ago, it was evidence of an improving economy. Any increased spending necessitated by conducting the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, they said, was warranted as a necessary expenditure for keeping the nation safe from the terrorist threat.
The Kerry/Edwards objective -- to create and keep jobs in America by reducing the deficit and restraining federal spending -- is identical to that of Bush/Cheney, but the question is which team is better able to achieve those goals. The Democrats wish to boost employment by restraining the spiraling costs of health care for employers and rewarding companies that keep jobs in the United States. The Republicans want to reduce regulation on businesses, make tax relief permanent and protect employers from what they term "frivolous lawsuits."
Another weighty decision for voters is which candidate can best lead the nation as it confronts the international terrorist threat. The question of the nations future response to terrorism is of importance to Puerto Ricans, whose sons and daughters have borne a disproportionate burden of the military in response to it. On Wednesday, the Department of Defense announced the death of Staff Sgt. Gary A. Vaillant, 41, of Trujillo, Puerto Rico. He is the 20th Puerto Rican to die since the build-up to the Iraq war began in late 2002. Sgt. Vaillant died on Sept. 5th in Khalidiya, Iraq, when his tank ran over a land mine.
The war in Iraq is increasingly unpopular among the American people as insurgents have resisted the U.S. effort to stabilize the country, shore up the authority of the interim Iraqi government and establish a climate for elections. There are now pockets of Iraqi cities occupied by heavily armed resistance fighters that prevent the entry of either Iraqi police or U.S. troops. With January elections scheduled in Iraq, it is questionable if the country can be sufficiently pacified to permit them to occur.
Bush advocates say that his administration has met the terrorist threat and acted decisively. His detractors say that he has created an atmosphere of fear among the electorate, out of proportion to any imagined threat. Further, they say that his invasion of Iraq was without justification, has damaged U.S. diplomatic relations and wasted the national treasure of money and lives. Bush says that the elimination of the dictator Saddam Hussein was, alone, vindication for the war.
The Defense Department this week reported that the U.S. death toll reached 1004, 75% of whom died in hostile action, the remainder by accident. Another 126 coalition troops have died in combat. To date, some 7000 American military personnel have been wounded or injured there. The Pentagon also estimates that between 1,500 and 2,500 "former regime elements" died in the past month alone.
Kerrys defenders say that he will protect the nation and create a cooperative climate for an effective international confrontation of the terrorist threat and that his heroic combat record in Vietnam gives him a realistic perspective on the limitations of military force. His opponents cite his voting record as inconsistent and a sign of confusion and indecisiveness. Vice President Cheney has gone so far as to suggest that if John Kerry is elected "well get hit again" by terrorists.
Both sides have called the other "unfit for command." Such back and forth speculation and hyperbole have replaced reasoned debate in what is developing as a nasty and divisive campaign in a race that polls continue to show as virtually even.
What issue do you think will weigh the heavier as voters consider the two major candidates competing for the Oval Office for the next four years?