Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

04 November 2004

Why Bush Won

As the fact and the magnitude of John Kerry’s defeat slowly sink in, we Democrats are looking for scapegoats. It was those religious zealots, we say to ourselves. They appeared in droves to gut gays and abolish abortion—issues that hardly matter in the broad sweep of history. On the issues that really matter, we say to ourselves, they ignored the President’s abysmal performance in office. They did so, we think, because Karl Rove used brilliantly misleading advertising to sell them a defective product.

This conventional wisdom has a germ of truth. There are reports that the Amish and other isolated religious sects in Ohio and Pennsylvania came out in force to vote for Bush, largely for religious or “cultural” reasons. Even more interesting, these same religious sects traditionally have not voted much at all. Somehow, Bush beat Kerry decisively in the “ground war,” turning out over 8 million new voters to Kerry’s 5 million. These sects, passively hiding in the interstices of American politics for generations, may have been the Bush campaign’s secret weapon.

Yet as many pollsters and pundits refute this analysis as support it. The poll reporting one-fifth of the electorate as focused primarily on “moral issues,” they say, is misleading because the term is so broad. Many cooler heads reason simply that more people came out to vote this time because the election was more important than usual, and that people voted for the candidate they thought was the best. Sometimes the simplest explanation is the right one.

We Democrats lost despite more spending money than we have ever seen and waging a more effective and professional grass-roots effort than we have ever mounted. Our opponent had made more serious mistakes of policy and judgment than any leader in recent memory. If we want to know why we lost, we had better look in the mirror.

That’s hard to do after so exhausting and disappointing a loss. But if we do so honestly, we will see something extraordinary. Somehow, imperceptibly and unnoticed by most of us, the party of Franklin Roosevelt has become the reactionary party. We have done little since 2000 but react to the Republicans’ proposals and the heartbreaking results of that year’s election.

The President’s father, Bush I, might tell us why. It’s that “vision thing.” On virtually every important issue of the day, the President has not only a grand vision for the future, but a plausible means to realize it. Worried about terrorism short term? We’ll bring the fight to the terrorists overseas so we don’t have to fight them at home. We’ll protect our homeland by keeping the terrorists off balance and disrupting their operations abroad. Worried about terrorism long term? We’ll reform the Islamic world, starting with Iraq, by bringing it liberty and democracy. Free people don’t usually make war on their neighbors or blow themselves up just to kill others.

The domestic Bush prescriptions are no less visionary. Worried about the growth of government and the budget deficits? We’ll reduce entitlements, allowing organized religion to take up the slack with voluntary contributions made lovingly for God. Worried about energy and our nation’s dependence on foreign oil? We’ve got enough coal for 200 years right here in America; all we need to do is burn it, relaxing environmental controls to make the burning easier. Worried about the economy? We’ll cut taxes more to stimulate business and investment. Worried about the sorry state of our schools? Impose higher standards and make students and teachers live up to them. As every educator knows, if you raise the bar students will jump it. Worried about social security going bankrupt before you retire? Convert part of it into private accounts that can earn higher rates of return in the stock market.

And so it goes. Leave aside for a moment the parts of this vision that are impracticable or utopian. Since when have we Americans shirked, as Bush put it so laughably during the debates, “hard work”? Leave aside the unintended consequences, like the 100,000 dead Iraqis, the gargantuan deficits, and the toxins that all that burning coal will spew into the air we breathe. Leave aside the Bush Administration’s grossly incompetent execution, especially of the war in Iraq. Leave aside the President’s limited command of English and his administration’s many catastrophic mistakes. What you are left with is unquestionably a grand vision addressing virtually every problem we face, both short term and long term.

In some respects the vision is brilliant. Most Americans can accept, if not enthusiastically endorse, its basic goals—at least if they could be realized with acceptable cost and minimal collateral damage. Who would not like to see democracy in the Middle East and throughout the Islamic world? Who is sad that Saddam is gone? Who would rather fight the terrorists in our streets than abroad? Who would not like to decrease the burden of entitlements on our budget, if only it could be done without abandoning our communal obligations? Who would not like to hold all of our children to higher standards? Who does not wish for a deus ex machina, whether private accounts or something else, to save us from our own collectively bungled retirement budgeting? Who does not wish that we could continue to cut taxes forever until we all could keep all of our “own money”?

Yet a pleasant but implausible dream is not all. There are means proposed to meet every goal, and the means are at least plausible. Want democracy in Iraq? Depose the grisly tyrant Saddam, and democracy will follow as the night the day. Want to contain the terrorists abroad? Keep them bottled up in Tora Bora, lure them to Iraq and (as Colin Powell said so eloquently in the First Gulf War), cut them off and kill them. Want to save social security? Divert money into private accounts and watch it grow at the rate of the best private mutual funds in a bull market.

Sure, there are objections galore. Any one with half a brain can cite multiple reasons why each stated means can’t work, won’t work, or will have disastrous unintended consequences. But to most voters, these objections are detail, fodder for the pundits. For many, it is enough that the goals are good—and they are!—and the means plausible. Citing a hundred reasons why an ambitious plan with laudable goals won’t work is not the best way to persuade. Americans are not naysayers.

Now compare the Bush vision with what John Kerry offered. On Iraq, he proposed a “smarter and better war.” Excuse me for contradicting my chosen candidate, but that’s tactics and means, not a vision. The Kerry goal was the same as Bush’s: we must win. On terrorists, again both parties had the same goal: we will find them, capture them, and kill them. On social security, the Kerry theme was bit different: read my lips—I will never touch social security. In other words, we have a huge problem looming, and I won’t do a thing about it. Bush was probably smart to duck this one.

Again and again the Kerry message was clear: we don’t have a unique vision, but we offer smarter, better tactics and better English to explain them. On many issues of importance to voters—terrorism, the war in Iraq, even No Child Left Behind—the goals of the Kerry campaign differed imperceptibly, if at all, from those of the Bush Administration. The argument was all about means.

And what about jobs? Was there any grand vision to restore manufacturing in our country and assuage worker’s anxiety? We offered none, just closing tax loopholes. Does anyone seriously believe that closing a few tax loopholes is going to hold back the tectonic forces of globalization that have been operating unseen for decades and now are just beginning to cause earthquakes at home?

On only two issues did something approaching a unique Democratic vision emerge. The first was energy independence in ten years. The Bush campaign co-opted this goal so quickly and cleverly that, if you hadn’t been paying attention, you might have thought they invented it. The second was universal health care. Only there did the Kerry campaign have a clear distinction and a clear advantage. The Bush forces reduced that advantage by arguing, again not implausibly, that Kerry’s vision would increase costs and government bureaucracy. The important point, however, is that this issue—health care—was the only one in the entire campaign in which Democrats had greater vision and forced the Bush campaign to fight on the ground of means, tactics and detail.

In the field of global cooperation, Kerry had a chance to articulate a broad vision, but his efforts were too feeble and too late. He focused far too much on tactics, like getting our allies to contribute to the Iraq war effort. Did anyone really expect to see French, Russian or German contractors in Iraq anytime soon, let alone troops, when workers there are beheaded daily and dedicated, hardened, and courageous NGOs are heading for the hills? Kerry had a chance do more than just mention the Kyoto treaty, the international criminal court, and several other instances of American pigheadedness. He might have sketched a grand vision of worldwide cooperation, not just on terror, but on energy, innovation, education, and the environment, but apparently he lacked the vision to do so.

* * *

We Democrats now have had two candidates—Dukakis and Kerry—whose failure proves beyond a doubt that tactics and competence don’t trump vision. That rule holds even if implementation of the vision is as highly and obviously flawed as it was in Bush’s case. There were good reasons for us Democrats to pick Kerry in this race at this time: his stature, his experience, his gravitas, and his unique combination of personal courage, service, sacrifice and protest during the Vietnam war. But his Achilles heel was always a lack of vision.

As a party, we have to do better on the “vision thing” if we ever hope to recapture executive or legislative power again. The Republicans have some powerful and compelling visions on their side. They speak of worldwide liberty wrought with American power. They dream of robust private markets innovating and creating jobs and wealth while fostering self-reliance and personal responsibility. And they hope for a resurgence of morality and ethics powered by a muscular religious faith. We Democrats cannot beat these powerful visions simply by saying “Me, too, but better!” (as on terrorism and Iraq), by shouting “No, no, no!” (as on “privatizing” social security or school vouchers) or by ignoring the vision and the country’s yearning entirely (as on religion).

Despite the President’s poor command of English and apparently limited intelligence, the Republicans were the party of ideas in this election, as they were in 2000. Isn’t it time we Democrats had some new ideas of our own?

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