I voted for George W. Bush for president. This will hardly come as a surprise to regular readers of this magazine; earlier this year, when I wrote about how disappointed I was that President Bush had not governed like Governor Bush, I concluded that I would probably vote for him anyway, because I thought he was better suited than the leading Democratic candidates to deal with the dangerous times in which we live (“The Man Who Isn’t There,” February 2004). I made the same point in our previous issue, when I took the president’s side in an e-mail debate with William Broyles (“Stop Beating Around the Bush,” November 2004). An election forces voters to resolve their ambivalence and make a choice. I made mine, but my ambivalence, which I put in abeyance for one day, has returned.
George W. Bush deserved to lose this election, according to the normal standards of judging presidential performance—but John Kerry didn’t deserve to win it. Bush deserved to lose because the two most important policies of his administration, the war in Iraq and the tax cuts, were disasters, and his credibility was in question. His administration had fallen into the predictable trap of winning the war but losing the peace. He and his advisers ignored the generals’ advice that more troops were needed in Iraq, and they ignored the State Department’s advice on how to rebuild the country. The tax cuts have produced mind-boggling deficits without doing much to stimulate the economy. It is no wonder that the most important indicator of a president’s standing with voters—polls showing whether Americans think the country is on the right track or the wrong track—showed that, even on the eve of the election, a solid majority believed that the country was headed in the wrong direction.
So why did Bush win—and not just win but win comfortably, piling up 3.5 million more votes than Kerry and 5 million more votes than any previous presidential candidate? There are two answers. One is little-picture: The Democrats lost because they had a poor candidate and employed poor tactics. The other is big-picture: The Republicans won because they were more in step with the spirit of the times.
Let’s start with the little picture. There is an old political adage about the difficulty of beating an incumbent, even a controversial one: “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.” John Kerry proved to be a nobody. The country kept waiting for him to provide a rationale for his candidacy other than being the UnBush, but he never did. Compare Kerry with the Democratic presidents of recent vintage: He lacked the charisma of John Kennedy, the political mastery of Lyndon Johnson, the homespun virtue of Jimmy Carter, and the personal touch—pardon the double entendre—of Bill Clinton (and for that matter, the passion of the onetime 2004 Democratic front-runner, Howard Dean). The main accomplishment of his life was his war record, which he trumpeted at the Democratic convention to the exclusion of almost everything else and, by so doing, practically invited the attack that soon followed. He had a scant record of achievement in the Senate, though to be fair, a senator in the minority party has little chance to shape public policy.
A senator does have the ability to shape his voting record, however, and that was another problem for Kerry. The Bush team had no difficulty portraying him as anti-war and a tax-and-spender, and the Kerry team never could figure out how to position their candidate—whether to stand up for principle or attack Bush or take refuge in vague, feel-good responses, like “Reach out to our allies” and “Wage a smarter war on terror.” Bush was more comfortable in his own beliefs. You could see trouble ahead for Kerry when he didn’t get a bounce in the polls out of his own convention; he wasn’t energizing the Democratic base. After the Republican convention, Bush was on the verge of running away with the race until he zonked out in the first debate and gave Kerry new life.
So did the news cycle. In the last two months of the campaign, the reports from Iraq were relentlessly grim: predictions of civil war, ever-enlarging no-go zones, revelations of ignored advice from generals and administrators, topped off by the looted munitions dump. Mediocre though Kerry was, he too got more votes than any presidential candidate in history—except the one he was running against. But Bush is a lucky guy, and always has been, at least since he stopped looking for oil and started looking for votes. The past twenty years of Texas politics have been characterized by budget shortfalls and school finance crises, the exception being the six years when Bush was governor. When he ran for president in 2000, the butterfly-ballot snafu allowed him to fight Florida to a stalemate, and the U.S. Supreme Court made him president. Even the tragic events of 9/11, though terrible for us all, benefited him politically by giving him the chance to lead, which he capitalized on. And his luck held in 2004: The Democrats didn’t have a good candidate to put forth.
The other component of the little-picture argument is tactics. Political savants in both parties and in the media are in widespread agreement that Republicans (read: Karl Rove) are just better at the game of politics than the Democrats right now. One Rove trademark is identifying swing constituencies that could help win a crucial state. In Florida, for example, Bush’s support of Israel and snubbing of Yasser Arafat endeared him to normally Democratic Jewish voters and turned what was supposed to be a desperately close fight into a comfortable win. The war issue apparently helped Bush close the gender gap by attracting the so-called security moms, who tended to be liberal on social issues but cared more about the safety of their families. The legislation providing drug benefits for seniors (another huge constituency in Florida) robbed Democrats of the health care issue that has always worked to their advantage. The economic conservatives didn’t like the $500 billion price tag, but what were they going to do—vote for Kerry?
These appeals to swing voters belie the line, heard so often from the TV pundits, that the Rove game plan was simply to minister to religious conservatives. After the election, Rove told me what he had said to a reporter who raised the issue: “Let me get this straight. You’re saying that by appealing only to our base, we got five million more votes than any candidate in history?”
The other part of the Republican strategy was nothing new: Organize at the grass roots, register new voters, and get them out to vote. Both parties do it, but the Republicans did it better than the Democrats. The Bush campaign used what Rove calls “microtargeting” to identify individuals who were not registered to vote but had “Republican demographics” (including subscriptions to certain magazines). Then GOP foot soldiers got them registered. In the 57 Ohio counties, many of them rural, that traditionally vote Republican, the number of registered voters since 2000 rose by 79,000. In the 17 counties that vote Democratic (excluding Franklin County, the site of Columbus, which can go either way, although Kerry carried it), the registered-voter list dropped by 102,000, compared with four years ago, mainly due to population decline. Perhaps the reason Democrats couldn’t close the gap is that they used local people whom they paid $7 to $9 an hour to sign up new voters. This cast too broad a net, Republicans say; without targeting, not enough care was taken to determine whether a person was a likely voter or even eligible to vote. The Republicans used a combination of political professionals and trained volunteers. It is no wonder that they did better. As Machiavelli instructed in The Prince long ago, militia are more valuable than mercenaries.
This is great inside stuff, but in the end I wonder if the 2004 presidential election wasn’t decided as much by long-term trends as by the candidates and their campaigns. This is the big-picture argument: that the climate of the times, which finds Americans more worried about their country’s security and its moral fiber than about its economy, is more favorable to Republicans than Democrats. Indeed, the big-picture argument explains why the right-track/wrong-track poll results failed to predict the outcome of the election: Many of the people who felt the country was on the wrong track were actually Bush voters.
American presidential politics has been characterized by long cycles, in which one party and one theme is dominant. The current cycle began in 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan, succeeding one that began with the Great Depression and the election of Franklin Roosevelt. That era was about reform: broadening the American dream to include ethnic minorities, women, labor, and the poor, and it was overwhelmingly Democratic. It ended in a cascade of disillusionment: inner-city riots that cost the civil rights movement its broad-based support; mass protests against the Vietnam War and mainstream values; and the revelation in the Watergate scandal that the president of the United States was a crook. Idealism hasn’t been a force in American politics since. The election of Reagan ushered in the Values Era, in which cultural issues, from guns to gays, have generally been more important in politics than economic issues, and Republicans have been the beneficiaries. This cycle coincides with a time of immense demographic change, encompassing who Americans are, where they live, how their families are structured, and what kind of work they do. It is no wonder that people in the untrendy states between the coasts and below the Mason-Dixon Line worry about violence in the entertainment media and the sanctity of marriage when they are already face-to-face with social upheaval in their daily lives.
I think this cycle will be with us for at least another twenty years, until the demographic majority becomes the minority, the disillusioned baby boomers are gone, and the next political cycle sees the rebirth of the Democratic party. Until that day comes, Democrats can’t do much about the big picture. But they can do something about the little picture: Learn how to play the game better—and find a candidate who can win.