Predictions for a Crucial Year (2004)

Editor's Note: Ted told us to "Clip this column and bury it in a time capsule under a begonia, then dig it out next year to see how well I played the role of Cassandra." So we did. Here's how he scored.

NEW YORK--People say it every December but for once it's true: the year ahead will be a crucial one for America. The 2004 elections will offer voters a discrete choice between two possible futures, each offering benefits and pitfalls. Should the Republicans and Bush prevail, the radical reforms enacted under his first term--a shift of power away from Congress toward an increasingly imperious presidency, the transition from European-influenced secular democracy to Third World-style theocratic police state, perpetual war--will take on an air of institutional permanence. The neoconservatives' vision of the United States (aggressive, unilateral, despised and feared) will slowly but surely replace the 20th century ideal of the American nation (strong yet slow to anger, generous, democratic and freedom-loving).

On its face a Howard Dean victory would be even less appealing in the short run. Fiscal austerity in the wake of Bush's tax giveaways would require difficult spending cuts and tax increases. Engineering a withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, two pointless and unaffordable wars, would suck up time and money. Terrorists might mistake reasonableness for weakness and strike more aggressively at American targets. The real benefits of a Dean victory--a stronger economy, improved international relations, maybe a solution to the healthcare crisis--might not become feasible until after the post-Bush clean-up, during a second term.

So who's going to win? Will the U.S. become the new Evil Empire? Are things going to improve in Iraq? Predictions are for saps, but what the hell. Here's what, failing the inevitable, unforeseeable events that can and will change everything, I see happening during the coming year. Clip this column and bury it in a time capsule under a begonia, then dig it out next year to see how well I played the role of Cassandra.

The Democratic Nominee: Howard Dean, hands down. He's leading in Iowa and New Hampshire, and 32 percent of Democratic National Committee members say they support the former Vermont governor. (Gephardt and Kerry get 15 and 14 percent respectively.) Not even a gaffe can stop him now. He got where he is by speaking off the cuff; no one will hold anything he says against him. Unfortunately, defending himself from primary opponents with no chance to win and nothing to lose will leave him bloodied and tens of millions of dollars poorer than Bush in the general election.

SCORE: 0-1 (Ted blew this prediction within the first month due to a scream.)

Riots in New York: It won't disintegrate into Chicago '68-style anarchy but the Republican convention, scheduled for early September at Madison Square Garden in order to coincide with 9/11 anniversary ceremonies at Ground Zero, will be a singularly ugly affair. More than 200,000 protesters are expected to converge on the capital of American liberalism to scream at delegates wearing those silly elephant hats. The NYPD will deploy shock-and-awe tactics to stop them, bloodying nightsticks and claiming a few lives.

SCORE: 0-2 (Protests, yes. Riots, no.)

Continuing Jobless Recovery: Though overpriced and fiscally reckless, the $1.8 trillion in tax cuts will continue to prime the pump of corporate recovery. The Dow will keep rising, perhaps as high as 12,000 by November. But a recovery isn't worthy of the name unless it creates good, high-pay, high-benefit jobs--and that won't happen. Due to three years of recession and the export of jobs overseas, there just isn't enough disposable income in the pockets of the average American to fuel the two-thirds of the economy directly dependent on consumer spending. No matter what, the unemployment rate won't drop below 5.2 percent.

SCORE: (A Draw) 0-2-1 (DOW at 10,500, Unemployment rate in Nov. 5.4%)

Karzai's Last Year: Regardless of whether Dean or Bush wins in the fall, Hamid Karzai's tenure as puppet president of Afghanistan will end in 2004 or 2005 (I'm betting the latter). Ironically, his last year will be characterized by unprecedented optimism for the future. Scheduled elections will be held on time, and Karzai will win. Modest rebuilding projects, the beneficiaries of a (U.S.) election-year funding boost, will finally begin. But Karzai's pet Trans-Afghanistan oil and gas pipeline project, as Asia Times says, remains on hold "basically because Afghanistan remains a country at war." Since the rump Afghan government doesn't control areas outside Kabul, Karzai's "election" won't enjoy international recognition. Worst of all, from Karzai's standpoint, is the fact that the U.S. put Afghanistan on the back burner last year. Opium production is going like gangbusters. The U.S. has already begun acknowledging Taliban control of various provinces. Karzai will be forced to choose between exile and assassination.

SCORE: 0-3-1 (Karzai's still going strong.)

More of the Same in Iraq: The guerilla war against U.S. occupation forces will continue. Foreign and local resistance fighters, funded and armed through neighboring Iran, Afghanistan and Syria, will continue to launch hourly attacks that claim a life and a dozen limbs per day. The U.S., meanwhile, will eschew carrot in favor of stick, radicalizing fence-sitting Iraqi moderates with Israeli-style round-ups, house demolitions and indiscriminate retaliatory airstrikes. Things won't get worse, but they won't get better.

SCORE: 1-3-1 (We'll give Ted this one. Acutally, things have gotten a little worse.)

Supremes Come Through: The U.S. Supreme Court, asked to judge the Bush Administration's policy of indefinite detention of "enemy combatants," will cite the Constitutional guarantee of due process to rule "release or file charges" re "dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla, Yaser Edam Hamdi and/or the Guantánamo Bay concentration camp inmates.

SCORE: 2-3-1 (Ted's faith in the Supremes proves true.)

Whoever Wins, Wins Big: I have no idea who will win the presidency, so I won't venture a prediction here. Most analysts, however, expecting a replay of 2000, think the presidential race will be tight. Not me. The advantages of Bush's ill-gotten incumbency and outsized attack ad budget could let him to trounce Dean in a landslide of Reaganesque proportions. On the other hand, several wild cards may lead to a Dean sweep: pent-up resentment over Florida 2000, a smart pick for vice president that overcomes concerns about Dean's lack of foreign policy experience (Bob Graham or Wesley Clark), more terrorist attacks, mismatched presidential debates. Thanks to redistricting and a flurry of Democratic retirements, the House and Senate will remain Republican regardless.

SCORE: 2-4-1 (While not as close as 2000, 2004's election was certainly still close. He did get the House and Senate prediction right. )

Another Year, No 9/11: George W. Bush is the best thing that ever happened to Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups. The anti-Americanism fueled by his policies has brought them unprecedented levels of cash and new recruits. Terrorists won't risk losing their benefactor by attacking us on U.S. soil before the election.

SCORE: 3-4-1 (Ted got this one right.)

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