Larry Downing  /  Reuters file
Cultivating allies around the globe, as Bush did  in a February Oval Office meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, is on the same level as courting U.S. voters.
By contributor
updated 3/17/2004 2:12:25 PM ET 2004-03-17T19:12:25

Bulletin: The first Planetary Election has begun. It’s a global contest of the highest possible stakes for control of the machinery of American might. There are many reasons why the Bush-Kerry race has started so early and is so nasty. Most are tactical. But this is profound: There has never been a more crucial issue to debate and never a sharper contrast between theories of how to protect America and achieve world peace.

In that sense, an eight-month campaign isn’t long enough.    

The notion of a Planetary Presidential Election came into focus in the bombing in Spain and its political aftermath — including, most recently, Howard Dean’s statement that President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was partly to blame for the death toll in Madrid. Sen. John Kerry repudiated the accusation, and his handlers got Dean to recant it, sort of.

But in his typically blunt way, the former governor of Vermont merely was voicing what most Democrats — including Kerry — probably believe, and that most of the rest of the world’s citizens take for granted: George Bush’s punch-in-the-nose method of dealing with terrorism will not work, indeed it will weaken democracies abroad and threaten America at home. (As if to underscore that, a car bomb struck a Baghdad hotel Wednesday, killing dozens.)

The 'strong horse' theory
More than anything else (including the economy), that’s what the debate in this campaign is going to be about: Bush’s “strong horse” theory (it was Osama bin Laden who laid down the challenge, saying that people inevitably will follow the “strong horse”) vs. Kerry’s still somewhat vague amalgam of old-style diplomacy, cultural outreach and military sophistication.

Video: Kerry defends record “Foreign” money is barred from playing a role in American elections, but foreign public opinion is not. Kerry seemed to applaud overseas participation when he said that “more” leaders abroad privately had told him that they hoped he would beat Bush. Kerry’s point was that we can’t protect this country without being respected, if not beloved, by the community of nations and that he was just the man to improve our standing in the world. Military might and “pre-emptive” wars against totalitarian regimes won’t win the forbearance, let alone the support, of the world, his argument goes.

To which Bush has two answers, at least so far. One, he contends, we do have a strong coalition with us, and even Spain will continue to be partners in the wider war on terror. The other answer is more basic: If we’re not militarily strong, and committed to bringing democracy to the planet — through the use of force, if necessary — then the planetary forces of cold-blooded terrorism will destroy freedom. There is a third answer, which you can hear faintly in some cable chatter and that the Bushies no doubt will use openly in the months ahead: that Kerry’s view is too “French” — too foreign, too accomodationist — and somehow fundamentally “foreign.”  Nativism is an ugly strain in American politics. Expect to see it.

Arguments don’t get any more basic, or global.

The whole world obviously has a stake in which sides wins. We are the most powerful, if reluctant, imperium since the days of Rome, and, as in those days, the politics of Rome reverberate throughout the known world.

The falling dollar remains the reserve currency, at least for now, but would a change of administrations in Washington hurt or help it? (Right now both Warren Buffett and George Soros, a leader of the anti-Bush crusade, are shorting it.) Where America decides to fight terrorism next — if anywhere — is of interest not only to people in the Middle East, but to their allies and enemies worldwide. Whether the U.N. becomes a truly powerful institution, or merely an anti-American debating society, is also at issue.  

The issues are global, and so are the strategies of the candidates. Bush is and will continue to stress his role as what he calls a “war president,” which necessarily means defending his "strong horse" theory. Kerry, out to impress Democratic primary voters that he was no Mike Dukakis, declared “Bring it On!” Neither he nor the Democratic Party wanted the fall race to focus exclusively on issues of war and peace, but Kerry’s declaration gave the Bush crowd an excuse, and Kerry doesn’t dare back away now.

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Global view from America, too
American voters have a global view, too. I’ve been talking to lots of voters in recent weeks in swing states and places such as Stark County, Ohio, and Hillsborough Country, Fla. Yes, polls show that the economy and jobs are the top issues. But voters have intense feelings and views about the war on terrorism in general and the war in Iraq in particular. Post 9/11, they are knowledgeable, and opinioned, about world affairs. They just don’t talk about the subject all the time, as we do on the talk shows.

Technology is another factor. The “press corps” is global now, both in physical and digital space. Since 9/11, I’ve been regularly checking foreign-press Web sites, from al Jazeera to the Guardian of London. In Iowa, the media was a Babel of tongues, each one of them acid (and almost uniformly anti-Bush). American polling firms now regularly assess opinion in Europe and around the world, and those results make headlines here at home.

And of course Madrid raises another specter: that the terrorists will try to “participate” in American politics by carrying out a similar bombing here. Will American voters react as those in Spain did, by throwing out the pro-Bush government? Let’s hope that American politics never gets that planetary.

Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.

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