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Thursday, Nov. 8, 2007 | However poor the Republican candidates for president may be, one of them could win the election next year. Whatever the polls say about their chances and however the popular vote turns out, our crazy electoral vote system leaves the presidential result in just a handful of swing states.

This is a new phenomenon. Presidents who lost the popular vote used to be a once-in-a-century rarity, but now seem likely to become commonplace. George Bush “won” the presidency in 2000 despite losing the election, and John Kerry came within an Ohio whisker of repeating the feat in 2004.

In the past half-century, the number of states in play in each election has halved, and the number of electoral votes up for grabs fallen to 180 (out of 538). However mediocre, a Republican can count on the Deep South and Midwest, and should he inch past the Democrat in a swing state like Ohio or Pennsylvania, he can win. It’s a strange democracy where candidates need campaign in only a handful of states, but until we change the system, as we did for Senate elections a century ago, we’re stuck with it.

Despite the wretched Bush presidency, which has done all it can to wreck the Republican Party, Democrats aren’t home free. We cannot exclude ending up with Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain or one of the others as president. So what are these gentlemen offering … what trick can they conjure up to persuade Ohioans and Pennsylvanians and maybe Iowans and Floridians to forget the Bush years and cast the nation’s lot again with the GOP?

Balanced budgets and strong alliances — traditional Republican fare — have become a mockery under Bush and his Republican Congress. Not likely Ohioans and the others will fall for that again. More tax cuts? But Bush’s tax cuts created the fiscal mess we’re in. And let’s not even mention the dollar.

What of Iraq? A geo-strategic and moral blunder of historic proportions, Iraq is a millstone around every Republican neck. John McCain, a sensible man on most things who once was favored to succeed Bush, is as tainted by Iraq as Bush. How strange that these two men — one a brave veteran of Vietnam and the other a war shirker — have reached the same conclusion on Vietnam: that we should have sent more troops and fought on to Hanoi. Neither has grasped the primary lesson: the colonial era is over.

Deprived of traditional issues, Republicans have turned to the neo-conservatives, who gave us Iraq, for their new theme. They call it Islamofascism, and there is a competition among them to see who is its stoutest foe. Democrats, they claim, are soft on the thing they call Islamofascism.

Being soft on something or other has been a stalwart GOP theme for years. Harry Truman was soft on Bejing, Jimmy Carter soft on Moscow and Bill Clinton soft on Belgrade and Baghdad. But let’s not forget that until Bush brought them out of the closet, neocons accused Republicans themselves of softism: Ronald Reagan was soft on the Soviet Union. His successor, George H.W. Bush, was soft on China and the Arabs.

For the neocons, few of whom ever saw military service, U.S. military power is the primary force for running the world. They see few political problems, especially in the Middle East, that can’t be solved by force. A principal neocon goal is the use of U.S. power to protect Israel, a position that has brought them into confrontations with presidents, like Reagan, Bush I and Clinton, who saw U.S. interests in broader terms.

Islamofascism is as meaningless a term as “axis of evil,” or “war on terrorism” — other neological inventions that substitute slogans and fear for fact and reason. Who or what exactly is an Islamofascist? Al Qaeda, Hamas, Taliban, Wahhabis, Salafists, Syrians, Iranians, Shiites, Sunnis, Pakistanis, all of the above? What about Turkey’s PKK? One sees the problem: These groups and governments see Islam in different ways and none unites the principal characteristics of fascism — power, industry, organization and desire for world conquest.

By hiring Norman Podhoretz, one of the original neocons, Rudy Giuliani has injected this absurd notion of Islamofascism into the presidential race. The other Republicans, led by Romney, have joined the chorus. They have Iran principally in their sights, an “Islamofascist” country that Podhoretz, and presumably Giuliani and the others, would have bombed long ago.

Iran’s theocratic government is loathsome in Western eyes, but hardly bent on world conquest. Iran’s desire for nuclear power, which dates to the time of the Shah, is understandable in a world of diminishing carbon fuels and rising oil prices, and it is legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Last month Egypt indicated it, too, was going nuclear. Western nations would like to prevent Iran from converting its nuclear power program into bombs, and the burning question is how to do that — whether to “war-war” or “jaw-jaw,” in Churchill’s formulation.

Whatever the neocons say, evidence from Iraq indicates that the bombing and occupying of large Islamic nations is a bad idea. It is costly, destructive and counter-productive. As we see from current events in Turkey and Pakistan, the debacle in Iraq already has marginalized U.S. influence in the region. Attacking Iran would have no international support, and though Bush will be soon gone, the debris of another war would complicate matters for his successor. Ground forces would also be needed, and the United States, thanks to Iraq, has none to spare.

Iraq and Iran, traditional enemies, once did a reasonable job of deterring each other, and Iran only has risen as Iraq has fallen. Republicans, still in thrall of the neocons, might like the idea of war against both, but for most of us the idea would be comical if not so deadly. If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, such policy would create the amazing situation where these traditional enemies were joined together against the common invader: us.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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