A country deeply divided over its military involvement in Iraq decided Tuesday to not dismiss its wartime leader. Voters gave another term to President Bush, with the president managing to craft an Electoral College map that looked almost exactly like his winning one from four years ago.
In the end, it appeared that Bush would carry 31 states and in addition will have won 51 percent of the total popular vote. Eight million more Americans voted for Bush than did so four years ago.
While Bush demonstrated to national television audiences during three debates how weak and inarticulate an advocate for his own policies he could sometimes be, he was able to paint a persuasive contrast between himself and Kerry on the question of leadership.
Again and again, when pollsters asked Americans which man was a more resolute and stronger leader; respondents opted for Bush, not Kerry.
On television news programs and in daily newspapers, Americans had gotten a torrent of bad news from Iraq throughout the entire campaign, news that could well have scuttled the incumbent.
In Election Day exit polling, 54 percent of voters who were interviewed said the war in Iraq was going badly.
But Kerry was unable to capitalize on all the bad news.
Despite saying he would never wage war without a plan to win the peace, Kerry did not come up with a persuasive explanation of how he would be able to win peace in Iraq himself.
“I know what we have to do in Iraq,” Kerry claimed in his speech to the Democratic National Convention last summer. “We need a president who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden, reduce the cost to American taxpayers, and reduce the risk to American soldiers.”
In reality, the voters seemed to have little trust in or affection for former U.S. allies such as France. And for their part, the French and German leaders made it plain that they had utterly no interest in joining Bush and American troops in policing Iraq.
A top French general told a visiting retired U.S. Army officer last spring, “Even if our policy here changed 180 degrees and the president (of France) came to us and said, ‘What can we do for Iraq?’ I have troops in Haiti, in the Ivory Coast, in the Horn of Africa, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan. I’m having difficulty meeting these commitments. The notion that we or the Germans can give you 50,000 troops, even together, is just not realistic.”
Perhaps those words — “just not realistic” — are the best verdict on Kerry’s decision to challenge Bush on the issue of Iraq, but without offering an alternative policy that was either clearly more dovish or more hawkish than Bush’s.
Perhaps the rhetorical low point for Kerry came when, in one speech, he pledged — in the midst of a string of adjectives — to wage a “more sensitive” war on terrorists.
One factor that paradoxically may have made it more difficult for Kerry to attack Bush’s Iraq policy was the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib.
Effect of Abu Ghraib
Perhaps partly due to the criticism leveled at him by the Swift Boat Veterans over his allegations of American atrocities during the Vietnam War, Kerry seemed skittish about saying anything that might be perceived as critical of Americans in uniform, even if a few of them were sadistic in the way they treated prisoners.
While the Abu Ghraib scandal was one potentially decisive factor that never seemed to come into play in this election, another one was the much-bruited idea that Bush would reinstitute the draft.
Contrary to much ballyhoo and self-promotion from Democratic-allied groups such as Rock the Vote, voters aged 18 to 29 did not show up in unprecedented numbers and accounted for the very same proportion of the electorate as they did in 2000, 17 percent.
Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were still very much at liberty to plot and plan and to rail against Bush, but exit poll interviews with voters on Tuesday showed that 54 percent thought the country was safer from terrorist attackers than it was four years ago. Among voters who believed this, Bush got more than three-quarters of their votes.
Long ago, in July of 2003, when Howard Dean seemed the most likely Democratic nominee, one Democratic strategist, Chris Kofinis told MSNBC, “Because of Sept. 11, national security is going to be the first thought (of voters). If you don’t have a message that can compete with President Bush’s record and message, you’re going to be at an amazing disadvantage.”
Again, Kerry did not persuade nearly enough voters that he’d be any more zealous at hunting down people such as Zarqawi than Bush has been.
This may have been the residue of voters seeing photos of suspects confined at Guantanamo: While some voters may have felt that Bush was going too far and not heeding the protocols of international law, few, if any, could argue he wasn’t going far enough in his efforts to round up, confine, or kill al-Qaida fanatics. Guantanamo may have gained Bush votes, not cost him votes.
Failure in the South
Looking at the electoral map and the goal of getting to 270 electoral votes, despite spending millions of dollars in ad buys and making repeated personal visits, Kerry could not find a way to pry away Ohio and Florida from the Republicans. And he was able to punch through and take away only one of the states Bush won in 2000, New Hampshire, with its four electoral votes.
The Democrats and their allied get-out-the-vote groups, such as America Coming Together, partly funded by billionaire George Soros, proved in the end to be unable to find enough extra Democratic voters in Cleveland, Dayton, West Palm Beach and Orlando to unseat the president.
In Florida, the remarkable feature of the vote was that in many medium-sized and small counties, Bush impressively outperformed his vote margins from 2000.
In Brevard County, for example, Bush’s margin of victory four years ago was 17,867. This year his Brevard victory margin was 42,685, more than double his 2000 margin.
To take another case, in Hillsborough County, four years ago Bush had a margin of 11,203, but in this election his margin was nearly triple that: 30,738.
Bush also seemed certain to take two states Democrat Al Gore carried in 2000, New Mexico and Iowa.
Once again as in 2000, a fatal flaw in the Democratic candidate’s strategy was failing to carry or even compete in any states in the old Confederacy or from among the border states of Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.
Moral issues on the ballot
Surely it was no coincidence that on the same night that Kerry lost, voters in 11 states gave overwhelming approval to state constitutional amendments to outlaw marriages between persons of the same sex.
Even in states such as Ohio and Michigan, hardly enclaves of doctrinaire social conservatism, the marriage measures won approval from three-fifths of the voters.
Exit poll interviews indicated that among the one-fifth of the electorate who thought moral issues were the dominant issue in the campaign, nearly 80 percent of them voted for Bush.
While he said he opposed same-sex marriage, Kerry was also on record as having voted against a 1996 federal law that let states refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
By so emphatically rejecting same-sex marriage, voters were firing a shot across the bow of the United States Supreme Court, which in the 2003 ruling in a case called Lawrence vs. Texas had opened the door to legal recognition of same-sex marriages.
A majority of voters were giving a thorough rebuke to the dictum laid down by Howard Dean last December, “We have got to stop having the campaigns run in this country based on abortion, guns, God, and gays — and start talking about education, jobs, and health care.”
As it turned out, Kerry felt toward the end of the campaign that he needed to talk about God fairly frequently. And a majority of voters in several states did care very deeply about the same-sex marriage question and did not consider it a “wedge issue” or a diversion from the “real” issues.
Some good news for Democrats
The good news for the Democrats is that they now have two fresh faces in the persons of thoughtful newly elected senators, one centrist, Ken Salazar in Colorado and one liberal, Barack Obama in Illinois. They were able to re-elect a charismatic and pragmatic moderate in Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who may merit consideration on any national ticket, considering the party’s woeful weakness in the South.
But the Democrats also lost a number of Senate seats, including Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s seat in South Dakota.
In the House of Representatives, the Republicans have now gained seats in two consecutive cycles and will enjoy a majority of 232, an increase of seven over their current membership.
Endangered Republican House incumbents such as Rob Simmons in eastern Connecticut, Heather Wilson in New Mexico, and Bob Beauprez in Colorado won by comfortable margins.
The Democrats appear to have a big opening for a new national leader. The likely new Senate Democratic Leader, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, a gracious man and a canny legislator operator, does not seem the ideal man for job of party spokesman.
So consider a classified ad: “Wanted: Articulate, vigorous and optimistic Democrat with impeccable national security/ anti-terrorism credentials. Also must possess a demonstrated capacity to win votes in Southern and border states. Any resemblance to Franklin Roosevelt would be highly advantageous.”