Update: I can't believe I forgot racial issues, so I've added that at the end.
This isn't going to be as carefully reasoned or systematic as I wanted, but I want to do it anyway just to have something to complement Wink's posts. What I want to do here is compare Bush and Kerry on the issues I care most about. There are lots of issues that they've talked about that I'm not sure I even have a view on, e.g. gun control. I agree with the NRA arguments on why gun control doesn't solve the problems it's supposed to solve, but I don't have any interest in owning a gun, and I don't really think the controls on purchasing guns are all that excessive. When you're dealing with a dangerous weapon, what's the big deal if you have to wait a week before buying it? It's inconvenient, but the NRA treats it as if it's oppression. So I don't really care what either guy says about guns. There are other issues on which I have a view but don't care enough about it or don't care enough about the differences between them to care which one I vote for. The gay marriage/civil unions issue is one of those. Bush supports an amendment that has absolutely no chance of passing, and Kerry doesn't. Big deal. They've both always favored civil unions but wanted state legislatures to make that decision. Bush held this view long before he endorsed the FMA, and he mentioned again last week that he holds it. So the difference there is insignificant in terms of any effects their views might have. So what issues are important to me, on which they do differ?
I'm not a single-issue voter on abortion, but I do think it's one of the most important issues in this election. I think we have a culture of euphemizing abortion (is that a word?), as if we can't admit what it really is. The code words "a woman's right to choose" without ever mentioning what she's choosing to do show this. It's a narrative told by liberal America that it's a simple choice with no moral consequences. Not every pro-choice person believes this, and I'm not sure Kerry believes it, but that's what the narrative based on the language he uses ends up causing. I believe he's repeated the Clinton mantra about keeping abortion safe, legal, and rare. I know Edwards has. Kerry's abortion voting record doesn't suggest to me that he's very interested in making abortion rare. He does seem interested in keeping it legal in pretty much every case whenever he's had a chance to limit it, and the line about protecting the mother's health isn't going to cut it as a real defense of a procedure that in itself is unhealthy but could be made much moreso if the delivery were continued to a live birth. I think the difference between the two on this is clear, I think Bush comes out far better on it, and I think it's an incredibly important issue.
People may complain about various ways the Bush Administration has handled Iraq, but I think they've learned some important lessons there. The neocons, for instance, are no longer interested in democratizing countries that they know we can't handle when we're already spread thin and having a hard time democratizing the two we're working with now. That's why I don't expect an invasion of Iran or Syria. Many people voting against Bush would list that possibility as one of their chief worries about a second Bush Administration. I just find it highly unlikely. I do worry about Kerry's foreign policy proposals as outlined in the first debate. As I said before, I took issue with almost everyone's evaluation of that debate. I thought Bush won it hands down on content, as long as you didn't pay attention to the beauty pageant factors most of the pundits were basing their evaluation on. Kerry's plan for North Korea scared me. His plan for dealing with the U.N. scared me. Even if you don't take his global test thing out of context, as many have, it's still something I very much wish won't happen. He did say a few times that no one nation could veto our sovereignty, but he didn't say that a group couldn't veto it.
I think the U.N. is highly corrupt and not something we can see as a leader in the world. Some of the members with the most power are basically our enemies, and it's not simply because Bush is our president. It's because their whole value system is opposite one strong and increasingly dominant value system in the U.S. I've spent a fair amount of time in Western Europe, and I've seen the difference in value system firsthand. It's real. It's gotten much worse since then, with anti-semitism and complete tolerance of Muslims in their more extreme views than any Christian group juxtaposed with great resistance to anything Christian. It's such a weird place. When I was in Berlin in 1997, I was aware of how much many Germans hated the U.S. That didn't come with Bush. It came with Clinton. They thought he was a joke. They probably think of Bush as a joke too, but the point is that it's not about Bush. It's about their view of this country. There's no reason to think they respected us before Bush but don't respect us because of him. There was no moral respect for the U.S. for a good deal before Bush became president. That's why I think it's a good idea to use the U.N. for what good it can accomplish but to keep it at an arm's length when they try to impose policies on us that aren't a good idea. I happen to think the Kyoto Protocol was one of those, but that's a debate that would take too long to deal with, so I won't explain my reasons, which may not coincide with the usual ones.
As for the plans for Iraq, I don't see a lot of difference except that Kerry wants to get us out quickly, even suggesting a deadline, and Bush wants to play it more by ear to see if it will be a good idea as we go. Bush's attitude seems better there. They take reverse positions on holding an election, and I think Kerry may get the edge there. We're in Iraq, though, and I don't see how the differences here on out will be that major. The transfer to sovereignty has occurred, and we're just supported the Iraqi government, which makes most of the decisions now, only taking advice and help from us until it declares no more need or desire for it or until we pull out on our own. Since Kerry is looking at Joe Biden as Secretary of State, and Biden was almost as close to Bush on Iraq as Joe Lieberman was, that muffles the blow of Kerry's views on things like pre-emptive self-defense, which I disagree with Wink on and think can quite easily be justified on an only slightly modified but otherwise standard just war theory.
I accept the trickle-down model of how the economy works. The Democratic candidates' debates showed that these guys had all accepted something along those lines. Conservatives have basically won that debate at this point. For that reason, I do think it's a good idea to maintain lower tax rates until the jobs issue gets better. Unemployment is really low, just as the economy itself has been doing well, in some part due to the tax cuts, but the particular kinds of jobs show some disturbing trends. I think both sides have manipulated figures to support their claims, but there are real worries here along with great gains from the recovery we've had. The dispute between Bush and Kerry on this issue seems to me to amount to Bush saying we need to continue to stimulate the economy and Kerry saying we need to do some things that will in effect stifle it, e.g. raising the minimum wage, which will lead to employers' simply not having as many employees. There's a long list, actually, but I'm not going to expand on it.
Health care is important to me, and I wish we could make health insurance more available and more affordable. I don't think that should be done at the cost it requires in places like Canada and Western Europe. I've seen enough experts criticizing Kerry's plan on specifics, most notably its outrageous cost and likelihood of requiring controls on things he doesn't want controlled, including both choice and quality, that I hesitate. I don't think there's anything wrong with plans like New York's, which gives HMO coverage to people who aren't poor enough for Blue Cross but still low income. We qualify for it, and I'm happy to take advantage of it. I think there are more ideal systems, but I don't oppose it on moral grounds. My worry isn't that Kerry's plan goes way beyond New York's. It might not. My worry is that he wants too much without enough resources and then complains that Bush isn't balancing the budget. That kind of thinking is only going to get us into more fiscal trouble than we're already in, and even Bush's spending is much less than Kerry wants. Besides, I prefer what Bush wants to spend it on.
I do care about the environment, and there are some worries about Bush on that, but much of what I've seen criticizing him on it is based on fallacious reasoning or simply ignores facts. Bush is nowhere near as bad on the environment as people like to think. He's done a lot to encourage rather than force environmentally friendly practices in the business world. In some ways I do think Kerry might be better, but I also think he'd give in way too much to policies that I worry about. Environmentalist concerns caused the California blackouts, according to a number of people who know much more about it than I do. I know environmentalist concerns are behind why the forest fires have been as bad as they have. I like conservationist principles, and I want to discourage pollution, but I see bad things about both these guys on that, and if Bush comes out worse in the end I think the other things I've said outweigh that.
This is getting too long and it's getting too late for me to say much more. I've probably left out some key issues, but I'll stop now, and if other issues come up in the comments, then so be it.
Update: On racial issues, Bush seems to me to be by far the better candidate. Kerry supports affirmative action unthinkingly, as if it's a permanent solution to racial problems rather than something that has downsides that may at some point (even now?) outweigh the benefits. Bush is opposed to the kind of affirmative action now practices but has himself used some kind of affirmative action in his cabinet and in his judicial appointments (it's kind of necessary to get any black representation in high positions by Republicans), and in his case he seems to me not to have lowered standards one bit while doing so. That's my ideal, what we should try to shoot for. Not every context is ready for it, but I like what Bush has done in his own decisions when it comes to the race of his appointees.
I don't for the life of me understand why black Americans are so opposed to Bush. Even with the concerns about No Child Left Behind, Bush doesn't seem to me to be anything like what keeps being said about him. He seems to me to care genuinely about black Americans. Some of his inner circle are black Americans who happen to be conservatives. John Kerry, alternatively, doesn't seem to be very close at all to people with any color to them at all. The one connection to Africa he has is his white wife, who herself was opposed to the apartheid practices she lived out but still represents upper class society and all its unfamiliarity with what life is like for the average inner city resident. Bush isn't exactly much better in terms of background than the Kerrys, but his close advisers and friends are from that background. He's therefore much more likely to be sensitive to those concerns, and I think Republican policies are actually better for race relations than Democratic policies. The Republican-led welfare reform has improved the lot of many African Americans, freeing them from a system that kept them back despite their resistance to its removal. Bush's tendencies lie in that direction, Kerry's away from it.
On racial issues, Kerry is a divider. He selected a running mate whose favorite political line is one of division -- that there are two Americas. It's true that Edwards wants there no longer to be two Americas, but compare him to Barack Obama's speech at the DNC, and you see a stark contrast. Obama, at least in his words (but not in my view in his votes) is a uniter. A lot of his views about ethical issues regarding race are fairly conservative. It's just that he supports liberal policies when it comes to the law. Edwards, on the other hand, seems to want to paint things as badly as possible so as to undermine the real progress that's taken place, and its effect is that it seems as if there are no opportunities for poor and/or black people in this country. Bush's language seems to me to be more like Obama's, and Kerry's unsurprisingly is more like that of Edwards. Bush's speeches to black audiences have, in my mind, been everything he's needed to do. If he did anything more, they'd call it pandering. If he did less, they'd call it not caring. As it is, they have nothing to say, so they just ignore him and even though he does seem to be offering great things they don't care, merely because he's a Republican, and they've been told that Republicans are the enemy. He can't win in the current environment on racial issues, though small numbers of blacks have gradually been moving toward conservatism, and I think by the next election we'll see a bigger change in the demographics. The reason he can't win has little to do with what he's said or done. It has to do with what Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have said and done. Support for Kerry among black voters is lukewarm for a reason. He has nothing for them. It saddens me that so many don't see what that should mean.