Since the 2000 election (search), we’ve been told again and again that we’re a nation deeply divided, red state versus blue. President Bush (search) and Sen. John Kerry (search) have noted on the campaign trail that Election 2004 promises a “clear choice” between two candidates offering two very different paths for America.

The base camps for the two candidates paint the picture in even starker hues. Democrats say this election is about narrowing the gap between rich and poor and about rehabilitating America’s relationship with the rest of the world; Republicans insist that our national security — and perhaps our very existence — depends upon who comes out on top this November.

I’m not buying it.

For all the rhetoric, your life really won’t be much different no matter which candidate wins this fall.

Kerry is a pro-business Democrat who’s liberal on those social issues over which the executive branch has little control. President Bush is a big-government Republican who’s conservative on those social issues over which the executive branch has little control. The power either would hold as president wouldn’t make much difference on the few issues where they differ most. 

To illustrate, let’s run down a few of the more contentious issues:  

The War in Iraq/The War on Terror  

Sen. Kerry voted for the authorizing resolution to send troops to Iraq (search). Yes, he voted against the $87 billion in ongoing support, but only to make a statement, knowing that his vote would not affect the outcome of the final vote. In fact, Kerry has hinted that he’d follow the suggestions of Sens. Joe Biden and John McCain and send more troops to the region. 

Kerry also supported the full plate of mini-wars undertaken by President Clinton. The idea that Kerry is even remotely an “anti-war” candidate just doesn’t wash. At the end of a Kerry presidency, we will in all likelihood be just as committed to Iraq as we would be at the end of a second Bush presidency. And we’d likely be committed to a number of new “humanitarian” missions as well.  

For all their complaints against John Ashcroft’s Justice Department, civil libertarians (search) might keep in mind that the last Democrat in the White House gave us Janet Reno. It’s difficult to see how the same attorney general who gave us Waco (search) would show any more deference to civil liberties in a post-Sept. 11 America than John Ashcroft has.  

Abortion  

President Bush claims to be pro-life, but has given pro-lifers little to celebrate other than to sign a late-term abortion ban (search) that probably won’t hold up in court. In fact, the only significant action either candidate could take on the abortion issue would be to nominate Supreme Court justices who would either affirm or vote to overturn Roe v. Wade (search). But either candidate’s election will likely only strengthen the resolve of justices on either side of the issue to stay on the bench. 

The party opposite the party in the White House will also temper either candidate’s more staunch nominations in the U.S. Senate, either by voting them down or with a filibuster (search). Currently, the Supreme Court sits at six votes in favor of Roe, three votes against. At most, a second Bush term might see the retirement of one of those six pro-Roe votes, justice John Paul Stevens. It’s possible, but unlikely, that a Kerry presidency would at most see the retirement of Chief Justice Rehnquist. Either way, Roe v. Wade and federal abortion policy aren’t likely to change much in the next four years.  

Trade, Immigration, Outsourcing

President Bush has already disappointed anti-immigration conservatives with his quasi-amnesty program for immigrant workers (search). His record on trade has been spotty at best, as he has upheld, renewed or even introduced numerous tariff and subsidy programs. And while Sen. Kerry peppers his campaign speeches with talk of “fair trade” and “Benedict CEOs,” he voted for both the WTO (search) and NAFTA (search).  With Sen. Joe Lieberman, Kerry was the most pro-trade, pro-business candidate in the Democrat primary field. In short, President Bush isn’t nearly as free trade as he claims, and Sen. Kerry is much more free trade than he’d have you believe.  

Government Spending and Taxes  

Kerry has criticized President Bush’s tax cuts, but in fact has proposed new tax cuts of his own. President Bush claims that he trusts Americans to spend their own money more than he trusts Washington to spend it, but has run up huge deficits, spending taxpayer dollars at rate increases unseen in 40 years — even when you take out defense and homeland security spending. 

In fact, some studies have shown that government grows more under Republican administrations than it does under Democrats, and that it grows least when the parties split the White House and the Congress. 

John Kerry will likely propose a whole slate of new government programs, but it’s difficult to see how he’ll be able to push them through a hostile Congress. If President Bush were going to dramatically simplify and/or alter the tax code as he promised in his last campaign, it’s hard to understand why he wouldn’t have done it while his party controlled both houses of Congress. 

Instead, he used that control to push through the biggest entitlement program since the Lyndon Johnson administration. It’s difficult to see how a President Kerry could spend more than President Bush has.

There are also very little practical differences between the candidates on the war on drugs, the federalization of crime or the death penalty.

The one issue that could potentially affect millions of Americans, and on which there’s significant disagreement between the two candidates, is Social Security. But it’s difficult to see any plan for private accounts proposed by President Bush mustering the number of Senate votes it would need to overcome a filibuster.  

It’s amusing that this election is already affecting so much vitriol and spite from both sides so early in the campaign. In truth, despite all the rhetoric, America isn’t likely to change much regardless of who occupies the White House come 2005.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute and publishes a Weblog at TheAgitator.com.

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