Updated Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2004, at 12:05 AM PT -
12:01 a.m. PT: Sigh. I really didn't want to have to write this.
George W. Bush is going to win re-election. Yeah, the lawyers will haggle about Ohio. But this time, Democrats don't have the popular vote on their side. Bush does.
If you're a Bush supporter, this is no surprise. You love him, so why shouldn't everybody else?
But if you're dissatisfied with Bush—or if, like me, you think he's been the worst president in memory—you have a lot of explaining to do. Why don't a majority of voters agree with us? How has Bush pulled it off?
I think this is the answer: Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.
Bush is a very simple man. You may think that makes him a bad president, as I do, but lots of people don't—and there are more of them than there are of us. If you don't believe me, take a look at those numbers on your TV screen.
Think about the simplicity of everything Bush says and does. He gives the same speech every time. His sentences are short and clear. "Government must do a few things and do them well," he says. True to his word, he has spent his political capital on a few big ideas: tax cuts, terrorism, Iraq. Even his electoral strategy tonight was powerfully simple: Win Florida, win Ohio, and nothing else matters. All those lesser states—Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire—don't matter if Bush reels in the big ones.
This is what so many people like about Bush's approach to terrorism. They forgive his marginal and not-so-marginal screw-ups, because they can see that fundamentally, he "gets it." They forgive his mismanagement of Iraq, because they see that his heart and will are in the right place. And while they may be unhappy about their economic circumstances, they don't hold that against him. What you and I see as unreflectiveness, they see as transparency. They trust him.
Now look at your candidate, John Kerry. What quality has he most lacked? Not courage—he proved that in Vietnam. Not will—he proved that in Iowa. Not brains—he proved that in the debates. What Kerry lacked was simplicity. Bush had one message; Kerry had dozens. Bush had one issue; Kerry had scores. Bush ended his sentences when you expected him to say more; Kerry went on and on, adding one prepositional phrase after another, until nobody could remember what he was talking about. Now Bush has two big states that mean everything, and Kerry has a bunch of little ones that add up to nothing.
If you're a Democrat, here's my advice. Do what the Republicans did in 1998. Get simple. Find a compelling salesman and get him ready to run for president in 2008. Put aside your quibbles about preparation, stature, expertise, nuance, and all that other hyper-sophisticated garbage that caused you to nominate Kerry. You already have legions of people with preparation, stature, expertise, and nuance ready to staff the executive branch of the federal government. You don't need one of them to be president. You just need somebody to win the White House and appoint them to his administration. And that will require all the simplicity, salesmanship, and easygoing humanity they don't have.
The good news is, that person is already available. His name is John Edwards. If you have any doubt about his electability, just read the exit polls from the 2004 Democratic primaries. If you don't think he's ready to be president—if you don't think he has the right credentials, the right gravitas, the right subtlety of thought—ask yourself whether these are the same things you find wanting in George W. Bush. Because evidently a majority of the voting population of the United States doesn't share your concern. They seem to be attracted to a candidate with a simple message, a clear focus, and a human touch. You might want to consider their views, since they're the ones who will decide whether you're sitting here again four years from now, wondering what went wrong.
In 1998 and 1999, Republicans cleared the field for George W. Bush. Members of Congress and other major officeholders threw their weight behind him to make sure he got the nomination. They united because their previous presidential nominee, a clumsy veteran senator, had gone down to defeat. They were facing eight years out of power, and they were hungry.
Do what they did. Give Edwards a job that will position him to run for president again in a couple of years. Clear the field of Hillary Clinton and any other well-meaning liberal who can't connect with people outside those islands of blue on your electoral map. Because you're going to get a simple president again next time, whether you like it or not. The only question is whether that president will be from your party or the other one.
William Saletan is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War.
Article URL: http://slate.msn.com/id/2109079/