At the Yale Club, members watched the first Presidential debate in the Grill Room on a flat-screen monitor mounted below a handsome deer’s head. There were cheers at the mention of the candidates’ shared alma mater, and there was gossip unlikely to be heard elsewhere. One elderly gentleman leaned in to tell his dinner companion about the President’s grandfather. “Prescott was actually a heavier drinker than George W.—in his youth, I mean,” he confided.
In the corner farthest from the deer sat Walter Russell Mead, class of 1976, a bearish man with a full head of graying ringlets. He hardly spoke during the 90-minute debate, fingering his napkin and watching intently. Deeply dissatisfied with President George W. Bush, hoping that Senator John Kerry would prove himself, Mr. Mead was trying to figure out how he’ll vote on Nov. 2.
“I’m an undecided voter,” Mr. Mead had said earlier in the evening. “It’s not so easy to figure out which candidate is the lesser evil and why—which is a depressing thing to be thinking about when the nation faces such difficult choices.”
The Yale Club, heart of the old Establishment, might be an unlikely place to go hunting for those elusive undecideds, allegedly a vanishing breed. Conventional wisdom has it that educated voters who follow politics already have made up their minds in this polarized election year, and pollsters say a swing voter is likely to be a married suburban woman who isn’t paying much attention to the candidates and their issues.
Mr. Mead, 52, doesn’t exactly fit that mold. He’s the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and his view of the world is detailed and often dark. He recently published a well-received analysis of American foreign policy in the age of terrorism called Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk.
But Mr. Mead is more typical than many think. Swing voters, as the Democratic pollster Mark Penn wrote in The Washington Post on Oct. 5, never went away, and now make up about a quarter of the electorate. Similarly, despite the reported polarization of the punditocracy, there’s a class of opinion makers that remains on the fence. They tend to be right-wing Democrats and liberal Republicans who supported the invasion of Iraq and share Mr. Bush’s view of a dangerous world. But they have less respect for the President’s domestic policies and his execution of the war.
They may not live in swing states, but their influence will extend well beyond Election Day. These undecided elites include foreign-policy analysts like Mr. Mead and influential bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Mickey Kaus. There are Democratic Jewish intellectuals who back Mr. Bush’s policies on Israel but don’t like much else about him. There are pillars of an older Republican establishment as well: Theodore Roosevelt IV said, through his assistant, that he is still “trying to listen to the debates and make up his mind.” Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chaffee recently suggested that he would write in the name of President Bush’s father on his ballot in November.
Just as ignorance can make a voter uncertain, so can sophistication, said Republican pollster Frank Luntz.
“There are two sets of undecideds,” Mr. Luntz said. “The clueless make up two-thirds. But the other third are concerned about a specific issue, and they’re the people who know the most. Two-to-one, dumb-to-smart.”
Mr. Mead is among the few at the heart of the foreign-policy establishment willing to lay out the case for indecision. (Others in the highly political world of foreign-policy intellectuals expressed serious doubts about both candidates, but declined to comment.) At the heart of his position is an acceptance of Mr. Bush’s view of the post–Sept. 11 world, but a distrust of the President’s abilities.
“We’ve got two people who want to drive the car, and most people in the car want to drive to Miami,” he explained, red wine in hand, to a small group of Yale Club members in the club library before the debate. “Kerry is an experienced driver, he has a capable team of people with him, but he wants to drive to Boston. George Bush, you ask where he’s going and he says, ‘Miami. Miami or bust. I’m going to Miami.’ But every time he gets behind the wheel, the car goes into the ditch. That’s our choice.”
Mr. Mead is seen as one of the most lucid historians of American foreign policy. He is best known for his 2001 book, Special Providence, which teased out the strands of American foreign policy. But this year, his dilemma begins with Bill Clinton, for whom he said he voted twice. (He declined to say for whom he voted in 2000.) In retrospect, he said, Mr. Clinton failed to pacify a dangerous world, and his foreign policy was “a flop.”
“It’s a damning record,” Mr. Mead said of the Clinton years. “Though we did get a terrific constitution for Bosnia, if it’s ever carried out.”
Mr. Kerry, in his estimation, hasn’t shown that he grasps that failing and wants to bring back Mr. Clinton’s approach, his aides and his “Sept. 10 mentality.”
As for Mr. Bush, Mr. Mead argues that he got one big thing right: that Sept. 11 revealed the world’s dangerous reality. Mr. Mead also backed the invasion for Iraq, on the grounds that containing Saddam Hussein was making the United States unnecessary enemies.
“Their ideas aren’t as stupid as their actions,” he said of Mr. Bush and his circle. “But I am hoping that the next time the Bush administration decides to knock over some government and take over the country, they will come up with a plan.”
Now Mr. Mead is looking for a President to trust with the “ugly choices” on the horizon: to let Iran go nuclear or to invade it, for example.
This set of sentiments—distrust of Mr. Kerry, disdain for Mr. Bush—is fairly well shared in segments of the American foreign-policy establishment, scholars said, though others were unwilling to attach their names to it.
Even among those foreign-policy heavyweights who have made up their minds, the discomfort with both candidates is easy to detect. Harvard’s Richard Pipes, an intellectual godfather of neoconservatism who, like Mr. Mead, supported the Iraq invasion, said that Mr. Bush “is a much better candidate.”
The only problem, he continued, is all that stuff about spreading democracy—you know, the core of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy.
“I oppose his notion of introducing democracy to Iraq,” he said. “It’s a noble idea, but it’s not very realistic. I would prefer he just turned over power to the tribal leaders and let them settle it.”
There’s little more enthusiasm in much of Mr. Kerry’s camp, which has been boosted by the support of many among a new group of “realist” foreign-policy thinkers united as the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. Anti-war and skeptical of grand democratizing schemes, these thinkers share a disdain for Mr. Bush, but they’re troubled by Mr. Kerry’s assertion—stressed in the debate—that he can salvage the Iraq war.
“I don’t want to hear that we’re going to win this war,” said Christopher Layne, a conservative scholar who is one of the coalition’s founders, and who will vote for Mr. Kerry despite wincing through his debate performance. “I want to hear him say we’re going to get out.”
“We’ve failed—we’re in a mess,” said another realist luminary, Columbia’s Kenneth Waltz, of Iraq. “I don’t think that Kerry is dumb enough to get us into situations like that, and he’ll get us out faster than Bush would.”
But Mr. Kerry has, after all, denied in the first debate that the soldiers in Iraq were dying for a mistake. “I believe that we have to win this,” Mr. Kerry said.
“I regret that,” Mr. Waltz said shortly.
Many foreign-policy professionals are fully on one bandwagon or the other, lukewarm as they may be in private. The best way to wield influence, after all, is to get on the bandwagon early, advising a candidate or a campaign, and so many have swallowed their qualms.
“There are many Bush supporters who have secret doubts, and there are many Kerry supporters who have secret doubts,” Mr. Mead said. “They’re professionally committed.”
Others in the world of opinion-making, however, are professionally uncommitted. Two of the most-read center-right bloggers, Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Kaus, the authors of AndrewSullivan.com and Slate ’s kausfiles, remain undeclared—a stance that can add some drama to their commentary. In 2000, Mr. Kaus took this position to the extreme, making his vote a kind of intellectual strip tease and publicly waffling even on Election Day, under the heading “Don’t Rush Me.” (He ultimately reported voting for Al Gore.)
This year, both have toyed with a pro-war excuse to support Mr. Kerry, which Mr. Kaus called the “rebranding” theory.
As Mr. Sullivan put it in March, “The strongest argument for Kerry is that we have already gained as much as we can for the time being with hard power and war; he won’t pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan; he won’t be able to duck a serious response to another terror attack; but he might help ease some of the hatred of the United States that this president has—undeservedly, in my view, but still undeniably—ratcheted to unseen levels.”
When will Mr. Kaus and Mr. Sullivan finally decide? Don’t touch that dial.
In New York, a brave few in the world of politics are admitting their indecision—at some personal risk.
“The ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’ mentality has jumped the curb from the war on terror to domestic partisan politics,” grumbled John Avlon, a former speechwriter for Rudolph Giuliani and the author of Independent Nation, who remains undecided. He said there’s no reason to demand that people make up their minds with a month remaining before the election.
Mr. Avlon puts security first.
“It’s impossible for any administration to take the war on terror too seriously for me,” he said. “I don’t want to think of Ayman al-Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden celebrating in any cave anywhere because we took out our President.”
Many of those New Yorkers are Jewish, and they like Mr. Bush’s unstinting support for the Israeli government.
Henry Stern, the longtime New York politician, former Parks Commissioner and eccentric commentator on the city’s politics, who started voting in 1956, said that this is the first time he hasn’t been solidly in one camp. Why?
“The question is, who will be better for the Jews—the Bible Belt or a Boston Brahmin?” he said. “I really don’t know the answer.
“Bush has a lot of limitations, but he has basic strengths,” Mr. Stern continued. “He knows the U.S. is in a world war that’s very deadly. But—well, he’s not very smart. And I disagree with him on all the local and all the national issues.”
As for Mr. Kerry, Mr. Stern said, “If I were admitting someone to college, I’d admit Kerry.” But his plan for Iraq is “nonsense,” and then there’s the worry that he’ll “abandon the Jews,” Mr. Stern said.
Indeed, Jewish voters, said Mr. Luntz, the pollster, make up a pronounced segment of the well-informed swing voters, the ones who don’t meet the stereotype of the suburban mom.
“The more I read, the more confused I am,” said Steve Lipman, a features writer for Jewish Week and the author of Laughter in Hell, a book about humor and the Holocaust. Mr. Lipman, 54, said he plans to draw up a list of issues and carefully weigh them to determine his vote; Israel, he said, will be high on the list, but it won’t be alone. “The fact that we went into Iraq and took out a real monster was a good thing, but he had no exit strategy,” Mr. Lipman said.
If there’s a pattern to these pointy-headed swing voters, it’s this: They backed the war, if with reservations; they’ve been appalled by Mr. Bush’s handling of the occupation. But like Mr. Mead, they aren’t sure Mr. Kerry appreciates the dangers facing the nation.
Back at the Yale Club, the celebrations belonged to the mildly pro-Kerry crowd, which laughed at Mr. Bush’s slips and groaned at Mr. Kerry’s. Mr. Mead hardly reacted. Mr. Kerry’s talk about solving the Iraq crisis through a summit seemed to produce an unfavorable squint. The Democrat’s plan for bribing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons produced a single question:
After the debate, Mr. Mead sipped a diet Coke and eyed a reporter across the table slightly suspiciously. He wasn’t watching the MSNBC pundits who had already begun to declare Mr. Kerry the victor, and who would amplify that call as the night went on.
What was Mr. Mead’s verdict?
“It was a draw,” he said.