The 2004 Presidential Campaign and What It Means for U.S.-Japan Relations

Date May 26, 2004
Speaker Edward LINCOLN(Senior Fellow, Asia and Economic Studies, Council on Foreign Relations)
Moderator Robert DUJARRIC(Visiting Scholar, RIETI)


I wanted to talk today a bit about the American election and what implications it might have for Japan. The most important thing is for me to start with some truth in advertising: I am a Democrat. Yet, I will attempt to be at least somewhat objective in my comments. Another disclaimer is that I am a Democrat but most certainly not speaking for the Kerry campaign.

This is a particularly interesting year to watch American presidential politics. From your standpoint, Japan is not an issue in this campaign. In fact, Japan is rarely an issue in American presidential campaigns. I can think of only two where the word "Japan" was mentioned by any candidate. That was 1980 when John Connelly was running for the nomination on a protectionist platform and 1992 when Bill Clinton took advantage of President Bush's somewhat unsuccessful trip to Tokyo in January of that year. Even though Japan has not been an issue in the campaign, the outcome of this election may have some implications for the bilateral relationship between Japan and the United States and this is what I wanted to talk about today.

Let me start with what is going on in American politics in this campaign. Normally, if a president is running for reelection and the economy is growing rather rapidly, then the president is very hard to beat. The fact that this year, with a rapidly growing economy, the public opinion polls show that this president is vulnerable is very interesting. I want to speak about why I think that is the case.

First of all, even though the economy is growing, employment did not start rising until a couple of months ago. This is somewhat unusual. The recovery in the economy dates back now more than a year and economists expected that growth in labor would start earlier than this, but it did not. It is only just beginning to pick up. So even though the economy was growing, people were not feeling very good. That worked against the president. However, we are still a number of months before the election.

If the employment figures continue to look very good over the next several months, then that works in President Bush's favor. Even if it does though, we still may see rather wide regional variations in employment growth and for some of the critical states in this election-Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia-the large loss of manufacturing jobs over the last four years may continue to be an issue for voters in those states.

Besides labor growth, there is actually a fair amount of controversy and room for political debate on aspects of President Bush's accomplishments, or lack of accomplishments. There are three that I think stand out. First is healthcare. The U.S. does not have a national healthcare program, but we do have a national healthcare program for elderly people called MEDICARE. It does not however cover the cost of medicine. Congress passed a new law last year that provides some assistance to the elderly on the cost of medicine but many elderly people are not happy with this plan. This has provided the Democrats with an opportunity to attack the president for having pushed a very imperfect plan for healthcare.

Second is education. President Bush ran four years ago on a platform of improving public education. Yet, the complaint from educators and local governments has been that the government has saddled them with new testing requirements but there is no funding for this. Again, there is an opening for Democrats to argue against the policies of the president.

Third, and perhaps most important, is what Americans call "homeland security." After September 11, the Bush administration responded by saying it must do more to protect Americans in the U.S. against terrorism. The key element of that was to bring various parts of different government agencies together into a new Department of Homeland Security. No one objected to that, but again, as with education, the attack by Democrats has been that the president did not put enough money into it.

That is the domestic policy, but the huge issue for this president is foreign policy: the war on terror and the war against Iraq. For this audience in Tokyo, let me just say that if you were in the United States, stories about Iraq totally dominate the news. We are having a major political debate about what is happening, who is responsible, and whether we need a change in political leadership to deal with that.

This is actually very interesting because immediately after September 11, President Bush had an extremely high public opinion rating. President Bush's popularity continued through the military operation in Afghanistan. But all of that popularity has been squandered by the president with his war and occupation of Iraq. Let me just lay out some of the issues that are at the forefront of the debate over the war with Iraq in the U.S. This war was started on the justification that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. Obviously there were not any, so there are attacks against the administration for having gotten us into an unnecessary war on the basis of false information and at the very least deliberate exaggeration of intelligence information on the part of the administration.

There was also a failure in the administration to conduct any realistic postwar planning. The Defense Department shut out the State Department and other agencies for participation in postwar planning. They did a very bad job, so we entered the postwar phase with very unrealistic expectations about what would happen. This included the widely naive views that somehow Americans would be regarded as liberators.

In addition, the administration failed to line up very much international support for this war. Prime Ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Tony Blair are virtually the only major leaders that supported the U.S. As well, Americans are now seeing through international polls that international opinion about the U.S. has sunk to extremely low levels.

Recently, there have been revelations that the Defense Department changed the rules for the interrogation of prisoners in a way that created the atmosphere in which the atrocities against Iraqi prisoners were easier to occur. The administration wants to blame the individual soldiers who were involved in these abuses, but there are many Americans who feel that there is a structural issue here and not just a failure of individual human behavior. So, we now have a debate over that issue.

There is also a recent scandal about the administration having relied heavily on what turned out to be corrupt Iraqi exile groups prior to the war for information. Finally, we really have no realistic plan for a handover of power to an Iraqi government. Maybe the administration has a secret plan that we do not know, but there is considerable doubt by many Americans that they really have much of any plan at all.

Whichever side of these issues one comes out on, it is important for you to recognize that these issues form the core of a very divisive debate in the U.S. I would liken the situation today to be a little bit like 1968, when the presidential election revolved around the Vietnam War. Once again, we have a situation where are very deeply divided between those who have been extremely strong supporters of President Bush and those who are very deeply and strongly opposed to the administration. However this debate comes out, this is likely to be the deciding factor in this election.

That is my take on what is happening so far in this presidential election campaign. Let us now talk a bit about what this might mean for Japan. The outcome of American elections is not about free trade versus protectionism. Every four years I hear this from my friends in Japan, who are looking at American politics, and there is a tendency to believe that Republicans represent free trade and Democrats represent protectionism.

The reality is that there is really very little difference between the two parties. There is a difference in rhetoric, however. Every four years the Republicans talk about free trade because that is their philosophy. Once they get elected, they have no problem with protectionism. As for the Democrats, on the other hand, every four years at least some of them start sounding protectionist. But once they get into office they do not seek to restrict goods since they know as well as anybody else that open markets are good for the U.S.

Looking specifically at John Kerry, his voting record is very much a free trade voting record and his principal advisors are all people who believe in open trade and investment. I see no danger that a Kerry administration would drift in a protectionist direction.

In a U.S.-Japan context, it is possible that a Kerry administration would push a little harder on particular trade and economic issues than the Bush administration has. My view of the Bush administration is that they have artificially suppressed debate or negotiations with Japan on economic issues because the administration is so totally dominated by security policy and they are so happy with Prime Minister Koizumi for his support on the war against Iraq that the people who work on the economic side have been told not to raise any controversial issues. I see no desire on the part of either party to go back to the kind of bilateral debate and tension that we had in the 1980s and early 1990s. I think that era is over.

I think the broader implications of this election lie elsewhere, not specifically on bilateral relations per se but of differences between the two parties on economic and security policy. On the economic side, I think there are ways in which potentially a Kerry administration would be more advantageous to Japan than a Bush administration. The Bush administration has allowed the federal deficit to balloon to record levels and with that our current account deficit has also soared to record levels. If it turned out that Kerry won the election, his administration might well create an economic policy that is healthier for the U.S. in the long run and thereby underwrites continued healthy American economic growth, which is good for Japan.

I also have a feeling that a Kerry administration might put more energy into the Doha Round than the Bush administration, but I am less certain about that since it is entirely possible that a second-term Bush administration would also put more energy into the Doha Round. From the Bush administration standpoint, they do not want to do much on Doha until after the election because a big trade negotiation of this sort requires everyone to make concessions, and the administration does not want to anger particular political constituencies.

On security policy, if I were Japanese, I would worry that some of the moderates in this administration are going to leave. The rumor in Washington is that Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, and Jim Kelly are all out in a second Bush administration. Taking them out potentially increases the hand of the neo-conservatives and I worry that that could tilt U.S. policy in a more dangerous direction, particularly on an issue such as North Korea. Another Bush administration may continue to bungle the Iraq occupation and other foreign policy issues, pushing us in a potentially dangerous direction.

Let me also point out that it is not clear to me that Japan has gotten much leverage with this administration. I keep hearing that the reason Japan had to support Bush on Iraq was because of North Korea. Yet, I do not see the Bush administration really consulting with the Japanese government on any foreign policy issue. In addition, Japan has not gotten any assistance from the U.S. on the abductees issue. Prime Minister Koizumi asked that it be included in the six-party talks and the administration did not agree. If I were Prime Minister Koizumi, I would have telephoned Bush and asked for a letter guaranteeing that the U.S. would not seek the extradition of Charles Jenkins. Quite clearly, the Prime Minister did not do that or did not receive a favorable response.

What I want to reinforce is that there is a somewhat false notion in Tokyo that Japan's close ties with the U.S. have gotten Japan many things from President Bush. Instead, you have not gotten very much in return for all your support on Iraq. Yet, if John Kerry wins the election, we do not know how he would conduct foreign policy. The rhetoric is that it would be a more consultative process and less arrogant American unilateralism. I tend to believe that but we should remember that that was the campaign rhetoric of George Bush four years ago.

In conclusion, let me just say that I think this is an important election. It comes at a time of great divisions in American society. If President Bush wins, my concern is that my country will drift in a more right-wing direction, which I find very troubling. I would prefer to see the Democrats win. There is no direct impact for Japan. John Kerry has absolutely no record at all of statements or opinions on Japan. But I do think the outcome of this election has implications for both American domestic and foreign policy that in a broad sense affects Japan.

Questions and Answers

Q: What aspects of the U.S.-Japan economic relationship would a Kerry administration press? In addition, I would like to make the distinction that, as it seems historically, if you look at American pressure on Japan, it is what I would call protectionist pressure and liberalization pressure. How would a Kerry administration react on these issues?

A: I think it would be almost entirely on the liberalization side. In fact, I think this is a shift that occurred by the mid 1980s, with less emphasis on protectionism at home and more emphasis on opening markets abroad including Japan. I think it would continue in that spirit but it is unclear how it would work out. What we have had over the last seven or eight years has been a fairly steady process with the emphasis on regular meetings to talk about deregulation in Japan and investment. On this issue, I actually see very little difference between the Bush and Clinton administrations. Perhaps a Kerry administration would simply continue that process with a little more emphasis at the margin on dealing with Japan. It is also conceivable that a Kerry administration would come up with some bold new idea. I am beginning to hear talk in Washington about having a free trade area discussion with Japan. I would not rule that out as a dramatic new idea in a Kerry administration or even in a second Bush term.

Q: I have to agree with you that President Bush has not presented us with an exit strategy from Iraq. What will John Kerry do in Iraq if he wins the election? Secondly, has Tony Blair received any benefit from his support for the war in Iraq and what kind of influence does he have on Bush?

A: The first question raises a very big dilemma for the Democrats, with regard to what they would do different in Iraq from what the Bush administration has been doing. Clearly John Kerry cannot say he will bring the soldiers home because President Bush would accuse him of being unpatriotic and jeopardizing the lives of the soldiers by creating uncertainty about the U.S. presence. He also cannot do it because the idea of walking away from Iraq and leaving chaos would not be good and may create more terror. Hence, the Democrats' differences in policy will be rather modest. As for Tony Blair, I do not think that he has gotten much from the Americans either. I am not exactly sure what he wants but my impression is that for all the rhetoric of being appreciative of Tony Blair, we have not done much to help him out.

Q: I think there are some people who got things from Bush. Gerhard Schroeder would not have been elected if it had not been for Bush and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero would not have been the prime minister of Spain if it were not for Bush. Some people have gotten things from Bush, but it was not those whom the U.S. wanted to reward.

Q: Prime Minister Koizumi did ask President Bush for a pardon for Charles Jenkins and repeated requests have been denied because as some experts say, this is the time of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, who feel strongly about desertion amidst the war in Iraq. Would John Kerry as president and perhaps John McCain as defense secretary, both war heroes, make any difference in the U.S. government's disinclination to forgive desertion?

A: Mr. Kerry would care, but he would not necessarily follow the same policy as Bush. I think people like Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheney are fundamentally conservative in their personal belief and for them patriotism is a big thing, and that colors their response to desertion. I do not think a President Kerry would react that way. He was in the military but is also a much more liberal person. In addition, I think there is a tendency to take a small human issue of this sort and recognize that it is not something that we need to deny for the sake of a principal in a way that hurts our friend and ally. Personally, I think the solution on this one is not about a presidential pardon but it should be easy to at least send a letter saying the U.S. would not press for extradition.

Q: Does Mr. Kerry have a clear plan about domestic policy concerning economic growth, employment, the healthcare system, or education? What are his differences from the Bush administration's domestic policies?

A: The policies are beginning to emerge. For starters, the Democrats have attacked the president for a tax policy that was skewed toward reducing taxes for the wealthy and have said they would consider rolling back the tax reductions for the most affluent Americans as one means to reduce the deficit. On education, it is not clear what kind of policy there would be but I think there will be something. There is an effort to design a better plan for medical care for the elderly. Also, there is some emphasis on increased training programs for workers who have lost their jobs. On the loss of jobs due to foreign competition, Mr. Kerry is offering so far a very mild approach of saying we should change American tax policy so that whatever bias exists in the tax code that encourages companies to go abroad will be removed. You do have to keep in mind that it is high unlikely that a Kerry administration would have a Democratic Congress, so he would have to be somewhat cautious in his policy approaches because he has to work with an opposition Congress.

Q: How would a Kerry administration go about resolving the North Korean nuclear issue?

A: Mr. Kerry did write an Op-Ed piece on this issue a month or two ago. Essentially, he argued for a more cooperative approach with a greater willingness to negotiate rather than demand.

Q: I would like to know what would be the benefit of a Free trade Agreement (FTA) by Japan with the United States. My impression is that the Democrats view China as a very important market so I am curious why they would want to go forward with an FTA with Japan.

A: Let us be clear. I am not saying they will go forward with an FTA. I am just saying that I have heard this talk in Washington. So it is conceivable. I do not think America needs to have an FTA with Japan to counter the weight of China. They would do it because they are looking for something new to do and also because maybe it is time for deeper economic integration with Japan. Let me add that not only do the Democrats think China is a growing market we need to be involved in, so do the Republicans. The Bush administration came into office with a perceived anti-China, pro-Japan stance but they finished up the process of bringing China into the WTO.

Q: How would a Kerry administration affect the prospects of Japan dealing with North Korea since Japan has up to now followed Washington's CVID ("complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement" of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs) approach?

A: I am not sure. It might be an easier line for Japan to follow if the Kerry administration were less rigid. In a sense, it may be that American policy would look a little more consistent with what I feel the Japanese government wants. The impression I get over the last ten years is that the Japanese government is somewhat more eager to move ahead with North Korea. But, they have been held back by the Americans.

Q: What about the perception of China as a long term strategic competitor. There was a good deal of discussion about this early in the Bush administration. The strategic guidelines say it is an object of the U.S. to prevent any other power from equaling the U.S. on military strength and the only power in world likely to do that is China. Over the long term do you think there will be much difference between the Kerry administration and Bush administration in the strategic field?

A: There is probably not a lot of difference. I think the Bush administration came in with a fairly ideological position of concern about China, but they have moderated that. There is nothing like a major event like September 11 to realize that they need some communication with other great powers and this turned the U.S. back to China. That being said, I think this administration has a number of high-level officials who are very suspicious where China goes strategically in the future, and they do not want to encourage that. There are likely to be fewer such people in a Democratic administration, but still there are very few people who want to wholeheartedly embrace China.

Q: Can we expect any good development in the Middle East, particularly relations between Israel and Palestine? What do you think is Mr. Kerry's approach in this area?

A: I am not sure what Mr. Kerry has said so far concerning the Israel-Palestinian issue, other than to criticize the Bush approach. What I do find interesting is that the Bush approach has been extremely supportive of the Israeli government and one outcome of that, and his stance on Iraq, has been some support from the American Jewish community, which typically votes Democrat. This creates some difficulty for the Kerry campaign, which does not want to alienate a small but fairly important group of voters.

Q: The Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) expires during the next presidential term so can you comment on a potential Kerry administration's push to reauthorize the TPA in a potentially Republican-dominated Congress?

A: All I can say is that I hope Mr. Kerry would do a better job than Bill Clinton, who was in the same situation and did not get it. It would be equally challenging for Mr. Kerry since he has gone on the record of saying he supports environmental and labor issues being included in American trade negotiations. This was a big stumbling block for the Clinton administration. Thus, my feeling is that Mr. Kerry would either have to drop that or put it very mildly if he wanted Congress to agree to the TPA.

Q: What would happen if the U.S. Congress passed the North Korea Freedom Act?

A: I have not followed that at all. If it just relates to granting refugee status to escaped North Koreans, it sounds like it would be easy for Congress to pass, unless some in Congress are worried about attracting too many refugees.

Q: Mr. Bush seems to be in lots of trouble, but Mr. Kerry does not seem to be taking advantage of this difficulty. Since the primary, he has seemed to disappear as far as the Japanese media is concerned. Is this because he is such an intellectual that he tries to think everything through before saying something and then ends up not saying anything? In addition, does Mr. Kerry know anything about Japan?

A: On your first issue, Mr. Kerry has also become very quiet in the American media but it is not unusual to rest up following a difficult primary. There are some signs that he is beginning to be more outspoken and active. The other thing to keep in mind is money - Mr. Kerry may have been conserving money for later in the campaign. Concerning Japan, Mr. Kerry has no public record or statements on Japan. His main issue toward Asia was concerning those missing in action (MIAs) in Vietnam.

Q: The U.S. president is in many ways a de facto president of the world. How does a country like Japan try to influence the policy process in the U.S.?

A: The first answer is that Japan had better not try to influence the policy process because it is illegal. The Republicans got into trouble in the 1980s for accepting money from Japan. My impression is that the Japanese government is pro-Bush. Certainly, Prime Minister Koizumi is pro-Bush. If people feel strongly, they can always get out and march in the streets against Mr. Bush, but I do not see that happening in Japan.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.