Sunday, November 07, 2004

Election 2004: The Aftermath

Ok, if you’re a Bush supporter it’s time to take a break from celebrating and if you were a Kerry supporter it’s time to hold your head up high; there’s work to be done. Here’s my synopsis of the key points that we should all digest regarding Bush and the GOP’s big win and what we have to look forward to (or not) in the future.

1. How they won

There are a million theories going around about why the GOP was so successful. Although many have some merit, I think Bush largely owes his second term to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. If they had not legalized gay marriage in that bastion of the liberal elite, where John Kerry just so happens to live, the whole “culture war/moral values” campaign wouldn’t have had much bite (Remember, too, the highly-publicized parade of gay marriages in San Francisco that followed the Massachusetts decision). In 11 key swing states the GOP put anti-gay measures on the ballot and this brought out millions of evangelicals who feared a “gay agenda” was about the descend upon them. In addition, it helped push divisive social issues to the fore for a segment of the population that likely would not have been sufficiently motivated simply by the decades old fight over abortion rights. The final numbers are not in for Ohio but it is entirely plausible that Kerry’s margin of defeat was equal to the number of voters who were motivated by this sense of impending moral collapse, preached day in and day out in the newest wing of the GOP, the churches of the religious right. These are exactly the type of fear tactics the GOP has always been masterful at. David Brooks once wrote a piece entitled, “The Triumph of Hope over Self-Interest” in which he tried to explain why many poor whites vote against their immediate economic self-interest when voting for Republicans, who generally favor big business and tax cuts aimed at the rich. He believes that there is so much hope in these lower classes that they too one day will be rich that they see themselves as eventually being beneficiaries of policies that favor the wealthy. I always thought this was hopelessly naïve and now I think it’s a laughable theory. A more apt description would be the “Triumph of Hate over Self-Interest.”

2. Was Kerry the Wrong Man?

I’m going to take a moment and state unequivocally that I think Kerry was the man with the best chance of defeating Bush and that overall his campaign was excellent. A hundred thousand more votes in Ohio and right now we’d be talking about all the mistakes Bush made during his campaign and how Karl Rove blew it. True, there are no consolation prizes for the loser in our winner-take-all system, but Kerry should stand proud of what he accomplished. Taking on a war-time president who once enjoyed 90% approval ratings in the first election after the worst attack on our country in history was going to be an up-hill struggle. He came close, very close. Of course he made a number of blunders and could have done many things better, but Monday-morning quarterbacking is something I refuse to engage in. Kerry convincingly won all three debates, particularly the first one that was supposed to work to Bush’s strength on foreign policy. Although it will quickly fade into memory, I am going to hold on to those images of Bush scowling, nervous, and anxious, barely able to fill two minutes with a coherent answer to the most important questions facing our nation, while Kerry stood there calm, collected, and clearly laid out his case for protecting the country.

3. Four years of GOP dominance

As I mentioned on Wednesday there is something terribly unhealthy about one party having such a stronghold on the Congress and the Executive branch. Since Bush will make at least a couple of Supreme Court picks the GOP is poised to make a permanent mark on American politics in the next four years. Even those who profess to be conservatives and members of the Republican faithful should be a little worried. A number of the new GOP senators elected can only be characterized as right-wing extremists. (Saying that single moms should be barred from being teachers, that your Senate race is a question of good versus evil, or that abortion doctors should face the death penalty get you automatic membership in that notorious club.) I often implore my Republican friends to recognize that the noble ideals of libertarianism, fiscal responsibility, and limited government that they extol in the GOP are being over-shadowed by religious extremists who ultimately care very little for such things. I am often told not to worry, that these people are fringe elements that the Republicans need to pander to in order to win, but which don’t wield much real power. If ever there was a time to jettison such naïveté it is now. The extremists are in power, and likely to dominate the GOP for this next term. Obviously Democrats and progressives are going to be watching very closely what they do and I ask that Republicans pay close attention too. Yes, the Left has its Michael Moores and Al Frankens, but they don’t hold top leadership positions in the federal government at a time when one party rules all. Please, pay attention.

4. A Huge Conservative Victory?

One point I will always remember in the debates was when Bush called Kerry a liberal and Kerry retorted that labels don’t have much value, throwing the compassionate conservative message back at Bush and asking what it really means. If we look at Bush’s record so far Kerry has a strong point and I don’t think the GOP victory is a victory for conservative ideals. As mentioned above, this victory was due more to the religious right, which is not very concerned with the core principles of conservatism. On fiscal matters Bush has been a big spender and a deficit increaser. On trade he has imposed tariffs, fought WTO rulings, and increased farm subsidies. On energy policy he also wants more subsidies. He increased the “dreaded” New Deal entitlement program of Medicare and then forbid government bargaining for prices, which is as anti-capitalistic as you can get. Let’s not even start on how ludicrous it is to amend the Constitution, that most sacred of documents, to forbid gays from marrying. On foreign policy I don’t think anyone with a straight face can say that remaking the Middle East by military force is consistent with conservative principles either. Anyway, my point is that the Republicans and the GOP won big, but that they are no longer truly a conservative party, at least in the traditional sense of the term. What they are, I am not so sure, but I think we’re soon going to find out.

5. Specific Issues

A. The War in Iraq

I don’t think Kerry would’ve done things much differently than Bush on this front. A friend of mine in Europe mentioned how there’s almost a feeling of relief among European leaders that Bush won, since now they are under no pressure to help America in Iraq. We can expect to see a very aggressive and bloody campaign to defeat the insurgency any day now. I don’t want to be perceived as a pessimist but I just don’t see how that country is expected to have national elections in just a little over two months. Stay tuned.

B. Fiscal Issues

This is going to be fascinating to watch since the budget realities make it impossible for Bush to accomplish all of the things he wants: deficit reduction, making his tax cuts permanent, privatizing social security, and expanding education and health spending. The math simply does not work. I have no idea what is going to give but something will have to, and some interest groups are bound to be angry about the outcome.

C. The Environment

This is the issue where I feel the most remorse that John Kerry did not win. Kerry is an ardent environmentalist who had some great ideas that will never come to fruition. Bush, on the other hand, has bowed to industry at every turn and with new larger majorities in Congress we can expect to see a full-out assault on the environment as drilling and mining rights are given out for pennies on the dollar to campaign contributors, global warming is treated as a left-wing conspiracy, and farmed salmon are included as part of the total population when trying to determine the species’ status. Fiscal matters are things that can be reversed, since we can always raise and lower taxes and alter spending, but once the environment is destroyed it is forever (or at least for a very long time). There are many Republicans who are strong environmentalists and care deeply about these issues, but their voices have not been heard and with the shift even farther to the right I think we need to brace ourselves for some very unwelcome developments on this front.

D. The Supreme Court

These battles are going to be epic. Although the Democrats are severely weakened I can’t for the life of me imagine that they will not unite against any far-right picks, even if they happen to be women or minorities. This is the one thing they can do to show that they have some backbone and are not going to let the far-right take over American society; therefore I expect them to stand tough and united. If this happens Bush will be forced to nominate more moderate judges. Since they will likely replace either a far-right judge (Rehnquist) or a moderate (O’Connor) I think the balance on the court may not shift too radically. Of course, if Kerry had been elected it would have shifted the Court to the Left so from a Democratic perspective this is a tremendous lost opportunity that might not be made up for decades or generations to come. Also, if for any reason Justice Stevens can’t hold on until 2009, the Left is in big trouble.


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