When a drunken man tries to walk a tightrope, it is never possible to predict whether he will make it across or fall. Nothing you can reasonably foresee happening can possibly affect the outcome of his walk, and whatever happens depends entirely on accident.
So it was with the great presidential election of 2004, now quickly and thankfully receding into the ocean of bad memories.
On the morning of the election, the pro-Kerry Washington Post carried the headline “Election Day Dawns with Unpredictability,” while the pro-Bush Washington Times announced “Bush, Kerry battle down to wire.”Neither paper nor all their experts could predict whether the men they favored would make it across the tightrope. Nor could anyone else.
Long before the election took place, every conceivable voting bloc had been so massaged and manipulated by those skilled in such arts that everyone knew how they would vote months before they went to the polls. Only those few who could not be so massaged and manipulated—the “undecided vote,” as it was called—in the end determined the result.
Given the immense role that such political arts and the massive amounts of money needed to fund them now play in our politics, it is open to question whether we should continue to call our system “democracy” in any meaningful sense.
But certainly it makes no sense to speak, as Vice President Cheney did the morning after the election, of the victor in such elections gaining anything like a “mandate”—a command from the body of the people to pursue a particular course of action.
In the case of President Bush’s victory, any talk of a “mandate” is simply preposterous. The president, the incumbent chief executive of a nation at war, won by a bare 51 percent, only a slight improvement over his actual loss of the popular vote four years ago.
In 1972, Richard Nixon, also an incumbent war president, won by 60 percent.
Even in 1984, at the height of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War, the incumbent won by nearly 59 percent.
If George W. Bush’s two victories in 2000 and 2004—48 percent and 51 percent respectively—represent the “emerging Republican majority,” that majority is in serious trouble. By contrast with the victories of earlier wartime presidents, the thin margin Mr. Bush won Tuesday is a moral defeat.
A writer in the neoconservative Weekly Standard recently argued that the election was a “referendum on neoconservatism,” [Tod Lindberg, November 8, 2004] and he may have been right. If so, then neo-conservatism lost.
There was little serious discussion in the campaign of the rationale for the Iraq war or the grand strategy of exporting global democracy that are the trademarks of neoconservative policy. What seems to have motivated voters more than any other concern was neither national security nor the economy but “moral values.” There’s nothing neo about that kind of conservatism. It’s as old as the Old Republic itself, but few political leaders saw it coming.
Except for the unpredicted and unpredictable opacity of supporting “moral values,” then, there is virtually nothing that can be said about what the voting of the presidential election of 2004 tells us about what the president should do.
Nor is it even clear which “moral values” the voters believe are important.
The candidates (or more precisely their surrogates) spent most of the campaign vilifying each other’s 40-year-old war records. They devoted most of the carefully staged presidential “debates” to questioning each other’s judgments about the war with Iraq, but at no time did Mr. Kerry make clear what he would do in Iraq in the future or what he (or Mr. Bush) ought to have done in the past.
At no time did the president acknowledge that serious blunders—if not outright lies—contributed to launching a war we seem unable to finish.
There was no discussion of mass immigration, probably the major public issue facing the country today, nor of trade policy and its impact on the economy and the fate of the American middle class and its civilization.
Given the refusal of the candidates and the establishment media to address these and other issues, how can it possibly be claimed that any kind of “mandate” emerged from this election?
President Bush faces the next four years with neither any clear direction from the voters themselves nor any serious indication of what he and his administration really want to do.
The election he just won tells us who the legal president of the United States is, but neither the president nor the people who elected him seem able to tell us anything else.