Everyone has their favorite apocryphal stories. One of mine is the argument that is said to have broken out among a group of communist intellectuals in the 1950s over the success of the French Revolution. After much heated discussion, the debate ended when Chou En-Lai, the legendary diplomat for Mao Tse-Tung, said, "it is probably too early to tell." Since the argument happened over a century after the revolution, the comment goes down as a gem of restrained introspection. The Maoists were far from admirable figures, and their restraint regrettably did not extend to the way they treated their subjects, but they did have a knack for soundbites (what was the Little Red Book if not a series of talking points?), and in a different time and place they might've done well on CNBC, or even been guest-hosts on Crossfire. Certainly 24-hour cable could use a bit of introspection. If anyone on TV had even a drop of humility we probably wouldn't be hearing that the Democrats, on November 2, lost the "most important election of our lifetimes."
It is hard to imagine a more facile statement. It may turn out that this past election was the most important of our lives, but there is no way we can know that now. We will only know in the long run, and in the long run, as the saying goes, we will all be dead. In any event elections that are supposed to be momentous have a way of turning out to be less so, and those we think of as pedestrian often take on more import than we anticipated. Nineteen seventy-two was supposed to be a yawner: conclusion foregone, peace with honor, Nixon ascendant. Instead it gave us Watergate. The 2000 contest was likewise billed as referendum on the direction of our peace and prosperity; the economy tanked and the winner took us into two wars. Every election is important, and only time will tell us which ones are history's pivots.
But...you say, and I can hear it coming. We know this past election was more important, because the winner will likely appoint four justices to the Supreme Court. Maybe. The Court does throw a monkey wrench into things. But a survey of the recent past shows that Supreme Court justices are notorious for wandering off their ideological reservations. President Eisenhower sent William Brennan to the bench in the misguided hope that he would be a quiet and conservative Democrat on a Court dominated by Republicans. Brennan turned out to be both very liberal and very savvy; he engineered a slew of liberal decisions, and Ike later said appointing him was a grave mistake (to say nothing of Earl Warren). Richard Nixon sent Harry Blackmun to the Supreme Court in the expectation that he would bolster the conservatism of Warren Burger. Blackmun instead voted for the constitutional right to abortion and emerged as an ardent opponent of the death penalty, penning--in his dissent from Callins v. Collins--one of the most cogent polemics against capital punishment ("From this day forward, I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death..."). Appointing a justice is far different from controlling him or her; for every mindless automaton of the Clarence Thomas variety there is a maverick of Blackmun's sort as well.
Which is not to say there is no cause for worry. I'm as upset as anyone I know about Bush's re-election. What I'm saying is that this is not a time to get overwrought. It seemed the election had barely ended before we were swamped by a flood tide of defeatism. The Democratic Party, we were told, was "devastated." It was in dire need of "soul-searching." The same old verbal projectiles flew: we had tacked too hard to the center; we had run too far to the left. Strange news reports emerged. Democrats, being interviewed, talked about their anguish, about going to grief counselors (people: pull yourselves together). And, of course, good liberals everywhere contemplated a move to Canada.
Moving to Canada is in fact entirely justifiable if you are gay or lesbian. What happened on Election Day does not bode well for gays and lesbians in the United States; at best they will remain a rhetorical cudgel for the advancement of conservative interests, and at worst they will become an officially persecuted minority, one whose deprivation of freedom is increasingly sanctioned by federal and state laws. Any gay or lesbian person who stays in the United States to fight such developments is to be admired, but a sacrifice like that should never be expected. There was no shame in African-Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South, and likewise there is no shame in gays and lesbians departing for more tolerant borders. They would not be leaving their country; their country, unfortunately, has left them. There was no bigger disappoinment on Election Day.
For the rest of us, though... Well, allow me to work myself into a dudgeon. I used to chuckle politely when friends or acquaintances made remarks about moving to Canada. Now I nod, make a note of who is speaking, and privately resolve at the next opportunity to back over them with my car. I've run out of patience for the Canada idiocy; I don't want any more stupid emails about the coastal states seceding, or about the opportunities available to marry a Canadian. If you as an earnest liberal would like to go to Canada, then shut up and leave. Canada is beautiful country, and enlightened in many ways. But moving there after an election is not a political statement, or rather not a political statement of anything other than cowardice. This is not Vietnam; there is no draft, and most of us are in no danger. In fact it has been an explicit message of the Bush Administration that in the War on Terror we are called upon to make no sacrifice--that, truth be told, most of us do not have to do anything at all. Far from being asked to fight, or to forfeit our material comforts, all that is asked of us is our passivity, which we would deliver in spades if we relocated to Toronto or Vancouver for no reason other than to feel better about ourselves.
Does anyone honestly think the Bush Administration would crumble--that it would do anything other than privately rejoice--if large swathes of educated, affluent, liberal Americans, those Americans who most oppose its policies and are best positioned to derail them, departed for foreign soil? Could anything bring more discredit to the liberal cause? Imagine what Bill Clinton might have accomplished if the Republicans had moved en masse to Mexico in 1992. Imagine the propaganda victory for the Right, the chortling of Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, who could say they knew it all along, that liberals really don't like America, that they care only for themselves and will leave the moment events tilt the other way.
For that matter what sort of liberal just up and leaves? To my mind this reaction is not just out of proportion to the defeat we've suffered (I'll return to that in a minute) but also ill accords with our core principles. Migration is expensive, and hardly an opportunity available to most Americans. Emigration is thus not just defeatist but selfish; it is an abandonment of those on whom the Administration's policies will fall hardest--the people who lack access to health care, who do a disproportionate share of the fighting in our wars, who suffer most from conservative economic policies--by those of us most inclined and best equipped to help them. Leftists who talk even jokingly about emigrating only demonstrate the cheapness of their politics, the sorry elitism that somehow passes for liberalism in too many quarters today. It is enough, apparently, to speak with outrage on the poor's behalf at dinner parties, but when the chips fall the other way it is time simply to give up, sorry, you're on your own, we're Canadians now.
This attitude disgusts me, but it puzzles me too, because in looking at the election returns I just can't bring myself to think that the loss we suffered was all that devastating. Nor do I think it was the result of some colossal tactical error on the part of the Democratic Party. Inevitably, we've heard that the Democrats lost because they weren't centrist enough, or because they were too centrist, or because all we did was hate on Bush and never came up with ideas of our own. Other than that these are convenient things to say after any election, I can't understand why these arguments, which are so plainly wrong, have any traction at all. Anyone who thinks the Democrats weren't centrist enough should ask themselves if they really think Joe Lieberman would have made a better candidate, and anyone decrying an insufficient amount of leftism should close their eyes and picture Howard Dean getting cut to ribbons by the Republican propaganda machine. As for the "all we had was hatred of Bush" hypothesis: I defy anyone to read the Kerry campaign's proposals on trade, taxes, or healthcare reform, and then tell me they weren't substantive policy ideas (whether you agree with them is a different question, but it's hard to say they weren't substantive). Kerry was admittedly a bit vague on what he would with Iraq, and this probably played a part in his undoing. But the fact is we've been painted into a corner in Iraq; many of us opposed the war in the first place because we knew the simple act of invasion foreclosed most options--once we were in we just weren't getting out.
Now, one could argue that the problem wasn't Kerry lack of ideas, but his inability to sell them. I'd buy that--to an extent. The Democrats are not master salesmen, a weakness that was masked in the 1990s by Bill Clinton's extraordinary personal charisma. The Democratic Party is disorganized, it is dispersed, it is influenced too heavily by an ossified layer of K street consultants. Arguably in 2004 it relied too much on Hollywood personalities, whose goodwill cannot be doubted but whose involvement is highly vulnerable to populist attack. (Just as America got completely sick of Ben Affleck, John Kerry put him on his campaign bus. Whose idea was that?). The Democrats are also less a party than a group of disparate special interests that assembles every four years to try and elect a president. The Big Tent is the hardest one to raise: it is difficult for a party of environmentalists, organized labor, teacher's unions (who complicate matters by insisting they aren't part of organized labor), African-Americans, liberal affluent yuppies, left-leaning soccer moms and aging ex-hippies to arrive at--let alone sell--a national vision. And yet for all that, had Bob Shrum and his cohorts managed to flip 80,000 voters in Ohio, we'd all be hailing him as a genius, not as the man who has driven the Democrats into hopeless irrelevance.
The truth is that Kerry was a good candidate, but he was always a longshot. Yes, many of us thought he had a chance, and yes, the loss of the Senate seats--particularly Tom Daschle's--was a tough blow to take. But the Democrats had more seats at risk, and all the seats they lost were lost in strongly Republican states--states Bush carried in both 2000 and 2004. Losing them hurt, but their can't be considered a surprise. Likewise no serious person, and in fact no one with any sense of history, should have thought Kerry was the favorite heading into November. It is very hard to unseat a sitting president, and extremely hard to do so in a time of war. Nor, in those rare instances when a sitting president has been toppled has the toppling been done by a Senator, and certainly not a Senator from the Northeast. Upset candidates are governors, and usually Southern ones. (Ronald Reagan might be the recent exception to this rule, but I don't think it's a stretch to say that Orange County shares many cultural sensibilities with the South, and that this, combined with Reagan's aggressive courtship of the South--i.e., kicking off his campaign in Mississippi--might have made him a de facto Southern governor).
Governors make good candidates for the same reason they often make bad presidents; they have no experience at the national level and they have staked out few positions on national issues. For obvious reasons this becomes a disadvantage once they are on the job, but it is a tremendous help in getting the job, because a candidate without a history in national politics also has no enemies in national politics, and cannot be hamstrung by statements or positions from years before. President Bush was exaggerating only slightly when he said that John Kerry had been in Washington long enough to have voted on both sides of every issue; that's part of being a Senator. Opinions change with circumstances, and most honest people end up being flip-floppers. The last Senator to win the Presidency was John Kennedy, and Kennedy, admittedly, was not a flip-flopper; he was a cipher. He hadn't been in the Senate long when he ran, and he hadn't done much of anything in the Senate when he was there. No one knew a damn thing about him, and so they elected him over Richard Nixon, whose ideas and failings, even then, were well known.
Given all that, it is a testament to the Kerry campaign's adeptness (and also to the polarization of the electorate) that the 2004 race ended up as close as it was. It is all the more remarkable when one considers that Kerry ran a pretty clean campaign--he engaged in some unfortunate demagoguery about outsourcing, but otherwise told the truth about his opponents. The Republicans, I'm afraid, cannot say the same: much as they might argue otherwise, MoveOn.org is not the moral equivalent of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In 2004 the conservative dialogue was coarse and debased. The Republicans accused John Kerry of being a war criminal; their Vice Presidential candidate went before the cameras to say that a vote for Kerry was a vote for another terrorist attack. Republican operatives insistently smeared John Edwards as a "jacuzzi lawyer"; they appealed to a frightfully intolerant section of their religious base by putting anti-gay marriage amendments on the ballot in swing states. And as they have for the past few years, they repeatedly and explicitly impugned the patriotism of their political adversaries. Finally, on Election Day, they resurrected the old art of poll challenging, a practice invented and perfected by the Ku Klux Klan.
Set aside, for a moment, the repugnance of these tactics, and set aside as well the pardoxes therein. Set aside that a party ostensibly committed to fiscal conservatism can run the reckless deficits it does; that a party built on individual choice and minimal government regulation would seek to regulate and prohibit the most intimate relations between individuals if those individuals happen to be of the same sex; or that the party of Lincoln--who moved us dramatically closer to our ideal of equal rights for all--would now put forward the first constitutional amendment designed to roll back that progress, and deny a minority the same rights and protections the rest of us enjoy. Forget all that for a moment, and concentrate on this: politically, none of it should have been necessary.
Most incumbent presidents win convincingly, and many win in landslides. They don't need lies, wedge issues and scorched earth. Bill Clinton didn't attack Bob Dole, he ignored him--and there were probably times in 1984 when Ronald Reagan forgot who Walter Mondale was. Nixon didn't acknowledge McGovern, Johnson ran one (very unfair) TV ad, and then couldn't be bothered with Goldwater. Those who proclaim a Bush mandate like to point out that he was the first candidate to win a majority of the vote since 1988. True enough, but he also participated in the first election since 1988 that had no serious third party candidate. Ralph Nader played a small but significant role in 2000, and in any event in the 2000 popular vote Bush flat out lost. Ross Perot took 19 percent of the vote in 1992, and he came back to take 8 percent of the vote four years later. There were no Naders or Perots to gallop away with swing voters this year (Nader having been rendered justifiably impotent), and this fact alone increased the odds that the winner would also take the popular majority. It was a matter of math, not popularity; there was simply a smaller field of viable candidates.
And in context, Bush's winning of the popular vote is less telling than the margin by which he won it. Bush won the narrowest victory (2.9 percent) of any incumbent President since 1828. Woodrow Wilson's 1916 squeaker (3.1 percent) comes close, and Harry Truman's come-from-behind win in 1948 (4.5 percent) isn't far off either. Those races aside, though, every other re-elected incumbent since 1832 has at least doubled Bush's margin of victory. Nor does the electoral vote tell a very different story. Since 1804, no incumbent but Wilson has won a smaller share of the Electoral College than Bush did in 2004.
The world, in other words, is not ending; the mandate is illusory. The country has not swung crazily to the right, the Democratic Party has not been suddenly revealed as valueless and out of touch with America. The percentage of people who cast their vote based on moral values was the same in 2004 as it was in 1996, and no one was gnashing their teeth over gay marriage in 1996. The country remains, as it was before the election, split down the middle.
This is not to say that the election did not signal any sort of change. It did. As Jonathan Rauch points out, America may have stayed roughly the same, but the Republican Party has swung drastically to the right. The evangelicals who turned out en masse to vote for Bush did not just help deliver his presidential victory; they also replaced a number of moderates in the Senate with people who can legitimately be called extreme. Many of these new Senators have made plain their dislike of compromise, and many ran on platforms of social conservatism that bear little resemblance to the libertarian/free market ethos of traditional Republicanism.
The implications of this shift remain to be seen. The evangelicals have for a long time served the same role in the Republican party as African Americans (and increasingly big labor) have in the Democratic Party: a bloc of voters so reliable that their interests, once the election is over, can safely be ignored. Such is the curse of the marginal (or marginalized) agenda: the evangelicals get little respect in the Republican Party, but they also have nowhere else to go. Abortion, affirmative action, and gay rights have in the past been little more than useful tools for getting out the vote; the real work of conservative policy has been in tax cuts for the rich and accelerated deindustrialization.
With the re-election of Bush, however, the Christian right may be marginalized no more. The evangelicals--emboldened by their victory and their newfound media attention--are asserting themselves, and it is unclear whether the Republicans' policy of tokenism toward its religious base can persist. And although a swing toward further social conservativism should be alarming for liberals, it should also be so for far-sighted Republicans, for the temptation to reward the Christian base will be a potential weakness of the new Republican regime. If Bush, who is an evangelical himself, decides to abandon the tradition of elegant lip service and actually push the conservative Christian program, he risks a dangerous overreach. The numbers do not show that America, or even a preponderance of his own party, is ready to head down that road. The Bush majority is precarious, and veering away from core Republican ideas in favor of religious issues that have not traditionally been the realm of public policy may cause the McCain Republicans, not the Democrats, to engage in a bout of soul-searching. It may also alienate an electorate that is not nearly as reactionary as many media accounts would have us believe.
So yes, we lost. But we were expected to lose, and we didn't lose by much. This election was not a surprise, was not a disaster, and was not a God-sent sign of liberalism's impending obsolescence. Certainly the election was troubling, but I have neither patience nor respect for self-described liberals who see it as reason to roll over and die. Go die if you must; rot and wallow in your sanctimony and whine about the unfairness of the world. But do it by yourself. The rest of us have work to do.