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Mission Finally Accomplished—Four More Years of the Political Right

by WS Editors

Nov 15, 2004 | Books, Politics


You might have thought that, three years after a devastating terrorist attack on American soil, a period which has featured two wars, radical political and economic legislation, and an adjustment to one of the biggest stock market crashes in history, the campaign for the presidency would be an especially elevated and notable affair. If so, you would be wrong.” That’s how The Economist, an esteemed weekly British magazine that is widely circulated in the U.S., described the 2004 presidential race in a pre-election summary.

In their readable new book, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, two Economistjournalists stationed here in Washington, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, describe the United States as the Divided States of America, and see it as turning even more conservative.

Beyond that, the judgment of the editors at the liberal New Republic was that “American liberalism is going into a deep internal exile.” As President Dwight Eisenhower once put it, “the future of this republic is in the hands of the American voter.” Well, maybe—if you’re a Republican.

The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that “the president got re-elected by dividing the country along fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance and religious rule. He doesn’t want to heal rifts; he wants to bring any riffraff who disagrees to heel.”

She went on: “W. ran a jihad in America so he can fight one in Iraq—drawing a devoted flock of evangelicals, or ‘values voters,’ as they call themselves, to the polls by opposing abortion, suffocating stem cell research and supporting a constitutional amendment against gay marriage.”

The Times‘s White House correspondent, Elizabeth Bumiller, reports that the president’s friends say that his re-election has “had a powerful effect on his psyche.”

For conservative Republicans, the faith-based label for their target was, and is, “moral culture”—the acceptance by their lefty adversaries of gay marriage, abortion rights and stem cell research.

In the magazine Sojourners, the liberal Rev. Jim Wallis said that “a real debate in this country” had begun about what the important “religious issues” are in politics. He anticipated that this discussion would continue far beyond this election. “The religious right fought to keep the focus on gay marriage and abortion, and even said that good Christians and Jews could only vote for the president. But many moderate and progressive Christians disagreed,” he said. “We insisted that poverty is also a religious issue, pointing to thousands of verses in the Bible on the poor. The environment—protection of God’s creation—is also one of our religious concerns. And millions of Christians in America believe the war in Iraq was not a ‘just war.'”

THE GROUND GAME—Following the election of 2000, when a popular vote minority was bestowed on George W. Bush, Karl Rove, the president’s long-time campaign guru, argued that the Republicans had let some 4 million evangelical Protestant votes slip away. He pointed to people who would have voted for Bush but instead stayed home. To prevent that this time, Rove and his circle quietly staged massive turn-out-the-vote crusades in rural and suburban areas known to be “culturally conservative”—against gay marriage and abortion rights. They corrected their 2000 mistake.

Far in advance of the election, Republican campaign strategists in 11 states had managed first to present voters with ballot questions asking voters whether they wished to bar or approve gay marriage; then they engineered massive conservative turnouts of people against gay marriage—and, of course, to vote for Bush. That bucked Kerry to defeat in the Buckeye State, Ohio.

Ballot proposals to legally sanctify gay marriage were heavily rejected in other states too, including, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Mississippi, all states carried by Bush. Even in Oregon, where Kerry won 52 percent of the vote, 57 percent of voters said no to the gay marriage question.

In California, voters convincingly approved a $3 billion, 10-year stem cell research program—not favored by President Bush but strongly supported by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Voters in Colorado rejected one of the highest-profile ballot initiatives in the nation, a change that would have awarded the state’s nine electoral votes on a prorated basis, as is done in Maine and Nebraska. The presidential candidate who won the vote statewide—Bush this time—would have lost one electoral vote for each congressional district carried by his opponent.

A majority of Democrats supported the idea. Republicans overwhelmingly rejected it.

OFF THE BEATEN PATH—Two years ago Karl Rove—”the architect,” as President Bush calls him—formulated a strategy for politicians this year to pick their voters, rather than having voters pick their politicians.

Well-organized Republican door bell ringers and phone bank operators quietly enlarged their voter turnout targets in rural and middle-class suburban areas known to be against gay marriage. As Maureen Dowd put it, Rove turned the Kennedy administration’s New Frontier strategy into an offer of “the New Backtier.”

It is now clear that in Florida as well as Ohio the Republicans’ aggressive pre-election salesmanship of “morality” brought record turnouts of religious-leaning middle-class Bush backers to the polls who had often failed to vote before. The New York Times found that more than 100,000 Rove rovers in Florida made about 3 million pro-Bush contacts with potential voters either before, or on, Election Day.

The Democrats’ strategy in Florida and Ohio leaned much more heavily on assembling cadres of lawyers, prepared to challenge voting irregularities or suppression tactics by seeking recounts and by resisting Republican efforts at polling places to disqualify Democratic voters.

In Ohio, which still relies heavily on the punch-card ballots that caused the Election Day scandals in Florida in 2000, the Times found that this year votes for president were left uncounted in 92,000 cases, largely because of punch-card problems.

In one suburb near Columbus, Ohio’s electronic touch-screen voting machines tallied 3,893 votes for Bush in a precinct with only 800 registered voters. That didn’t keep Kerry from finally conceding Ohio’s 20 electoral college votes to Bush for a total of 286, compared to Kerry’s 252.

Whatever conservative notions may have been endorsed along with a Bush presidency, in Florida and Nevada more than two-thirds of voters approved ballot initiatives that will raise those states’ minimum wage. Despite the determined opposition of Governor Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, 72 percent of Florida voters approved increasing the state’s minimum wage to $6.15 an hour, $1 more than the federal minimum.

MEANWHILE—Another election in Afghanistan, its first ever, went off OK after fourteen candidates agreed to withdraw their concerns about election fraud. America’s favored candidate won. But that came as the war in Iraq turned even more brutal as its elections approached. The interim government was forced to declare a two-month “state of emergency,” as if there hadn’t been one for the year and a half the Americans have been there.

And now American forces are engaged in a massive military attack on the city of Falluja, which has been ruled by rebellious and well-armed anti-U.S. insurgents. The United Nations secretary general, Kofi Anan, has asked the U.S. and Iraqi governments to call off the assault on Falluja, calling it a bad mistake. Bush is reported to be about to ask Congress for another $70 billion for the war in Iraq. That may not be enough.

On top of that, tensions in the rest of the Middle East are surging around the death, or disability, of Yasir Arafat, the bungling Palestinian leader. Our president has added to the Israeli-Palestinian mess by fumbling along with America’s pro-Israel strategy.

His other fumbles include failing to intervene forcefully in the savage destruction of the refugee population in Darfur.

The Bush White House has rejected American participation in eleven international treaties, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the pact creating International Criminal Court. Its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, designed to reduce global warming by cutting the emission of polluting chemicals from industry and automobiles, became more humiliating when Russia agreed to it last month.

THE BIG SPENDER—The presidential historian Robert Dallek noted that “second termers often get carried away.” Dallek says “the anger over the 2000 campaign and over issues such as stem cell research, civil liberties, and the Iraq war is as intense as anything we’ve heard in the last 100 years. . . . The deep division in the country seems likely to survive and fester the next administration. But although this is clearly a bitter and partisan moment in American history, it is important to remember that we have been here before. This is not the first time the U.S. has been at war with itself.”

As if to prove that, the re-elected “accidental president” of 2000 got off a revealing description of his plans for his second term at his November 4 press conference. “Let me put it to you this way,” Bush said, resorting to Wall Street lingo, “I earned capital in the campaign—political capital—and now I intend to spend it.”

Among other things, he was referring to his renewed demands on Congress to expand and make permanent his tax code changes favoring the well-off, to privatize part of Social Security, and to press for tort “reform,” which would limit the awards of complainants, and their attorneys, in lawsuits.
A spokesman for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America explained why at least 2,000 attorneys volunteered to serve as election monitors. The volunteering lawyers were infuriated by the Bush administration’s support of the tort law changes promoted by Republicans in Congress. “Bush has inspired a lot of our members because he attacks them so viciously,” a lawyers’ association spokesperson said.

Pre-election Anxiety Disorder—PAD—has turned into PDD—Post-election Day Depression. Today’s terrorism syndrome doesn’t bring us together the way the fear of atomic bomb annihilation did in the 1950s. For many Americans “the other political party” has became the villain. So the post-election hope of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for “more discourse and less discord” sounds overly optimistic.

As the columnist Neal Peirce put it, “progressives are being hard put to find an iota of silver lining in the election returns. . . . For now the progressives have to face bitter domestic prospects: what they expect to be more tax and regulatory favors for the affluent and big corporations, a renewed wave of conservative appointments to the courts (almost surely to the Supreme Court), watered down worker and environmental protections and—to reduce the monstrous deficits triggered by tax cuts and the Iraq war—a potentially historic wave of cuts in housing and other social benefits for the poor.”

“Still,” Peirce noted, “the progressives who saw their hopes dashed in this week’s presidential and congressional elections don’t need to be totally depressed. Voter-driven economic populism, a new serious focus on state level action, and starting early and seriously to register the toughest-to-mobilize new voters: the key to a more promising political future are at least in sight.”

The media industry magazine Editor & Publisher questioned the sweep of the Bush victory. “It’s true that President Bush got more votes than any winning candidate for president in history. He also got more people voting against him than any winning candidate for president in history.”

The Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt called the Bush victory “the narrowest win by a sitting president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916.”

As tallied by the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, no voter turnout has ever matched the 62.8 percent of registered citizens who voted in 1960 for John F. Kennedy, the 61.9 percent who voted in 1964 for Lyndon Johnson, or the 61.6 percent turnout for the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. The turnout in 2004 was 51.3 percent of the electorate. Of that, 52 percent voted for Bush, 48 percent for Kerry.

It was also the first time since 1936 that the re-election of a sitting president—F.D.R. back then—brought an increase of his party members in both the House and the Senate.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) claimed that the pro-gun candidates it supported had won 241 House seats and 14 Senate seats, described by the NRA as a 95 percent success rate.

Elsewhere the machinery of America’s democracy was creaking. Gerrymandering of congressional districts on a grotesque scale made nonsense of many congressional elections, particularly in Texas. No more than 30 of the 435 House seats were inter-party competitive, so as many as 400 seats were a foregone conclusion.

ANOTHER MINUS—The defeat in South Dakota of the Democrats’ able Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle, was the Republicans’ second most significant victory. In Wisconsin, where Kerry barely squeaked by, outspoken Democratic Senator Russ Feingold handily won a third term. Feingold opposed the war in Iraq and was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act.

But setbacks loom. With Daschle gone and with four new Republican senators to be seated in January, the president’s party will have a 10-vote senate majority. Bush may not have to contend with as many, if any, Democratic filibusters blocking confirmation of his conservative court nominees.

That court confirmation process starts in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a relatively liberal Republican, has been scheduled to become the chairman. Specter made some comments suggesting resistance there to overtly conservative Bush nominees, but under sharp criticism from other Republicans he then withdrew them.

President Bush is being cautious about commenting on it, but one of the biggest decisions of his second term—an issue largely undiscussed in the pre-election campaign—will be his nominations to the United States Supreme Court, where several aging, sitting Justices may be retiring. The most likely departure will be that of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, recently hospitalized for throat cancer and still recovering from surgery at home.

Even though it didn’t happen this year, we saw an editorial page cartoon of a doctor standing at the side of Justice Rehnquist’s hospital bed, urging him to relax because “you’ll be up and picking the president in no time.”

GEEZER SQUEEZE-OUTS—Two elderly and admirable candidates we’ve mentioned before didn’t make it on Election Day. In the Republican surge in West Virginia, former Representative Ken Hechler (D-WV), now 90 years old, lost his bid for the Mountain State’s secretary of state post, one he held from 1985 to 2001, after 18 years in the U.S. House. In a close race, Hechler lost to a 58-year-old Republican, Betty Ireland, the first woman to hold the office.

In New Hampshire, Doris Haddock, the 94-year-old crusader known as “Granny D,” who walked from coast to coast in 1999 to lobby for campaign finance reform, lost a symbolic Democratic race with a respectable 34 percent of the vote. She lost to two-term U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, a conservative former governor.

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