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War Torn | Squared Away | The Oz of Abu Ghraib | A Day in the Green Zone | In the Army now | The Prism of 9-11

And the winner is ...

Armed conflict has determined the outcome of several 20th century elections -- and this one won't be any different. But the next president won't be whom America perceives as the greatest comander-in-chief. Rather, it's greatest leader.

By James Riddlesperger
Professor of political science

The history of presidential elections suggests that two kinds of issues take precedence: the economy and whether the nation is at war. Iraq is the political issue of the year in 2004. As a result, it should have a major impact on who is elected president.

Armed conflict helped determine a number of elections in the 20th century. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson won reelection in a still largely isolationist nation with the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war.”

Soon after, the nation found itself in the Great War. The war in Europe affected the election of 1940 and afforded Franklin Roosevelt a bit of the rationale he needed to justify running for a third term; his reelection in 1944 while in failing health was assured in part because of the war.

War does not always boost presidents seeking reelection, as two Texas presidents experienced. The success of anti-war Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary in 1968 was instrumental in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection during the Vietnam War. In 1992, despite the overwhelming support attained during the Persian Gulf War the previous year, George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in an election complicated by the presence of another Texan, H. Ross Perot.

The effect of war, then, does not demonstrate a pattern that would help us predict the outcome of this year’s election.

Whether the nation is at war or not, incumbent presidents find their leadership the focal point of the contest. Moreover, the war in Iraq involves a variety of other issues, including the events of September 11, the war on terrorism, a global strategy of democratization and the impact of the war on the federal budget and budget deficits.

President Bush has told the American people that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a direct danger because he fostered an environment to sponsor terrorism and had dangerous weapons that could be used against the United States.

Democratic nominee John Kerry holds that while the removal of Saddam from power was a positive global development, his leadership had been crippled by Bush’s father in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. As a consequence, Saddam posed no direct threat to the United States. Kerry further argues that no evidence supports the president’s statements that Iraq sponsored terrorism or that it possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Bush and his advisers say they believe that stabilizing Iraq would make it an example for other nations in the Middle East to follow. Instilling democracy, rebuilding the infrastructure, improving the nation’s schools and using its resources for the people rather than the aggrandizement of Saddam and his supporters, so the argument goes, would bring about long-term stability to Iraq and to the region. A strong Iraq would provide a key to peace in this problematic region of the world.

Kerry says that the invasion of Iraq has destabilized the area because of the resentment Iraqis feel about the war and the subsequent occupation by American troops.

The president believes that the war is worth the billions of dollars the American people continue to contribute to the effort. Kerry believes that this massive amount, with no end in sight, could be better spent at home and that the war hampers economic growth.

Ultimately, voters will decide whether President Bush or Sen. Kerry makes the stronger case. Close examination of major issues provides the cornerstone of American democracy.

Democrats and Republicans alike, whatever their differences, agree at least on this: Political discourse and the ability of the people to pick their leaders provide the thread that helps secure the strong fabric of the nation. Disagreements over policy choices pale compared to the unity of the United States in loyalty to the ideal that the people should decide.

James Riddlesperger is chair of the political science department and co-editor of
Presidential Leadership and Civil Rights Policy. Write him at

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