Last spring it looked like John Kerry had a solid chance to knock off George Bush. The economy and the war in Iraq were going badly, and polls on key questions — like whether the country was on the right track — did not bode well for Bush. The campaign and allied groups were financially competitive and well organized. And Democrats were passionate in their fear and loathing of four more years of Bush.
But instead, what we got was four more dreadful years.
How did it happen? What does it portend? There are lots of places to look for explanations — or blame.
Was the problem the candidate?
Kerry, the windsurfer, was aloof and culturally out of touch. He was often slow to make decisions, could be long-winded and ambiguous, and didn’t fight back forcefully when his overplayed, if real, honor as a Vietnam vet was viciously assaulted. Not even his supporters deeply warmed to him. But he was an intelligent, decent and moderately progressive man — a man who had once shown as much courage opposing the Vietnam war as he had fighting it. It is uncertain whether any other Democratic candidate would have fared better, especially after the inevitable mauling by the Republican attack machine.
Was it the Kerry campaign?
By failing early on to attack Bush, defend Kerry and offer a bold vision, the campaign wasted the opportunity to define Kerry as somebody other than a consistently liberal flip-flopper (an image that stuck despite its inconsistency). The campaign only began to recover with Kerry’s strong debate performance and by forcefully criticizing Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq. Kerry had modest, reasonable plans for expanding healthcare, revising global economic policies, and reversing unfair Bush tax and budget policies. But the campaign failed to connect in the final weeks on the key economic issues for working and middle-class voters, who were open to a deal that Kerry failed to close.
Was it the voters?
Certainly Bush voters exhibited widespread ignorance and irrationality in supporting him as a “strong leader,” even as he was leading the charge against their own best interests. Days before the election, 72 percent of Bush supporters said they believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or a major development program, and 75 percent believed Iraq provided substantial support to al Qaeda — perceptions proved profoundly wrong by government investigations.
Among Bush’s crucial religious right supporters, opposition to abortion or gay marriage was important, but many voted for Bush simply because they thought he was “a good Christian man.” One anti-political evangelical preacher (“I care nothing for Social Security or Medicare”) warned that “if we do not break the power of the Muslim world now they will kill our children and grandchildren within the next 40 years.” But he praised Bush mainly for his Christian campaign rallies and for persuading a young man via telephone to be “born again.”
Was it Bush’s campaign?
Campaign for America’s Future co-director Robert Borosage argues that Bush waged “the most negative and dishonest campaign that we have witnessed by an incumbent president, at least since Richard Nixon. … His lies about Kerry’s positions, his shameless distortion of his record, his libels of his character were ruthless, unending and brutally effective.” Bush lied equally about his own record, but with clever packaging and conviction. As a result, Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed notes, despite growing poverty, inequality and job losses, the candidate of big business and the rich won in 26 of the 28 poorest states.
The Bush campaign matched the progressives’ strong suit — a ground campaign of voter registration and mobilization through direct contact. Labor unions and a host of new and old progressive groups greatly expanded their work. But Republicans and the right-wing religious network proved adept on the ground as well, often relying more than progressives did on volunteers.
The result was clear: Bush intensified support — both geographically and demographically — nearly everywhere he had been strong four years ago and made a few telling inroads into Democratic constituencies. He prevailed by roughly the same margin in rural and small-town America, but exit polls showed that he made big, disturbing gains in urban areas — particularly in the far-flung suburbs and exurbs that Karl Rove had targeted and where few pro-Kerry forces ventured. Bush also gained among women, most likely on security issues, thus shrinking the gender gap. And in a worrisome trend, Bush gained support from Hispanics, whose growing population had been seen as a harbinger of future Democratic success. Hispanic support for the Republican presidential candidate increased from 21 percent in 1996 to 31 percent in 2000 to 43 percent this year.
And what it wasn’t
One of the few bright spots for Democrats was the strong support for Kerry among 18 to 29 years olds, even if this year’s fervid youth organizing only maintained that group’s share of an expanded voting population. And first-time voters favored Kerry slightly, but not by as big a margin as progressives expected. Union members and their households — which slipped from 26 percent to 24 percent of the electorate, as union membership declined and overall turnout increased — voted for Kerry by a 65 percent margin, up slightly from support for Gore in 2000.
Democrats also slightly strengthened their support among families earning less than $50,000 a year (45 percent of the electorate) and among voters with a post-graduate education (16 percent of voters). But Bush, according to political scientist Philip Klinkner, gained enough among those earning more than $100,000 to explain his increased margin: The share of total turnout by that group increased by 3 percent and Bush’s support increased by 4 percent. At the same time, according to Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, Kerry lost ground among less-educated white voters, who should have been with him on class and economic issues but voted disproportionately Republican on cultural issues.
Parsing the issues
On the major issues facing voters, Kerry won strongly among those most concerned about the economy, Iraq and such issues as healthcare, Social Security and education (all together about 47 percent of voters). Bush won decisively among those worried about terrorism (19 percent) and so-called “moral values” (22 percent).
Clearly, it made a big difference whether campaigns got voters to frame their decision more on Iraq or on terrorism, on jobs or on abortion. For example, union members overwhelmingly focused on issues (51 percent) rather than personal character-values (24 percent), making them more open to Kerry. Among issues for unionists, the economy-jobs and Iraq were primary, even though moral values ranked first for 16 percent. By shifting their focus, unions affected the vote of key groups: Union members who owned guns voted for Kerry by a margin that was 32 percent greater than gun owners in the general public (who were strongly pro-Bush); union members who went to church weekly voted for Kerry by a margin 32 percent higher than churchgoers at large; and white male union members gave Kerry a 21 percent margin of support (while Bush won white males overall by 18 points).
Refighting the culture war
In the great debate about how moral values (read: a mishmash of gays, guns, God, abortion and estimates of personal character) determined this election, a few things are clear. The well-organized religious-right vote made a difference, playing the role in the Republican Party that the unions play in the Democratic Party, but regular churchgoers contributed about the same to Bush’s victory as in 2000. Many values voters are hard-core right-wingers whose support Democrats will never win. But others have competing frameworks for decisions, and progressives could persuade them with a convincing case on class and economic issues, despite cultural conflicts.
Finally, it makes sense to compete on values. Not by seeing who can shout “God bless America” the loudest, but with progressives making the moral case for equality, democracy, progressive taxation, and universal healthcare and education.
As Clinton effectively argued in his 1992 campaign, Democrats should advocate both individual rights and social responsibility — for everyone, including big corporations. But political realities must also be confronted when advocating for cultural change: At a time when Americans are moving toward acceptance of gay rights and civil unions, pushing hard for gay marriage was politically unwise, even if it contributed only marginally to Kerry’s defeat.
Kitchen table issues
Indeed, despite the defeat, most Americans side with the progressive Democratic position on many key issues. In a post-election poll by Greenberg, for the Institute for America’s Future, Americans favored preserving Social Security over private retirement accounts by 57 percent to 40 percent, enforcing labor and environmental protections in trade agreements by 58 percent to 33 percent, and fundamentally reforming healthcare over relying on market competition by 72 percent to 24 percent. If Kerry had delivered a stronger economic message in the final weeks, Greenberg argues, he likely would have won.
The rough road ahead
But Bush won, and now he will begin pushing an agenda that he only sketchily revealed in his campaign:
- Partially privatize Social Security
- Provide permanent tax cuts (including repeal of the estate tax) for the rich
- Radically reform the tax code (possibly a national sales tax or flat tax but clearly shifting taxes from the rich to everyone else)
- Institute greater corporate deregulation and tort reform (freeing corporations from public oversight and the free-market discipline of lawsuits)
- Drill for oil in Alaskan wilderness
- Provide greater freedom for media concentration
- Nominate more right-wing judges — threatening federal government regulatory authority as well as abortion rights
- Continue budget deficit strategy to “starve the beast” of non-military government programs
But the Bush agenda faces some obstacles despite a stronger Republican hold on Congress. The American public doesn’t support much of what he intends to do, and conservatives are growing more divided over the Iraq war and deficits. Bush’s policies — with big trade and budget deficits and regressive taxation — threaten the weak economic recovery. In the long run, Bush’s policies will only worsen the problems he claims to address. But how long — and how much damage — will it take before enough Americans wake up?
The challenge for Democrats is not to seek some common ground with an administration that is interested only in its surrender. Nor is it rhetorical repositioning for the next election. Rather, the first task is to determine what is right for most Americans, then how to win. The battle starts by challenging the immorality, ineffectiveness and duplicity of the Bush agenda, and fighting for a clear alternative.
At its core, the domestic alternative should include universal healthcare, progressive taxation, lifelong and affordable education, guarantees of a living wage and a secure retirement, rights of workers to unionize, greater public support for advanced research (including alternative energy), and corporate accountability.
Internationally, it should include social regulation of the global economy, a new commitment to broad-based economic development (not just free trade), international cooperation to destroy terrorist networks, pressure on both sides to settle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, dismantling nuclear arsenals, and repudiation of imperial ambitions in favor of an international golden rule — do unto others as we would want other nations to do unto us.
This may seem ludicrously ambitious in the gloomy light of defeat. But most Americans already support most of these ideals, and acting on them would deliver a better life to the vast majority of people here and abroad. But the practical task of winning requires reinforcing and expanding the infrastructure built for this election by Democrats and allies — including direct voter contact and a network of think tanks, publications and electronic media — as part of a permanent mobilization. There must be renewed emphasis on building real, grassroots organizations of committed citizens who can operate throughout the country, starting with a commitment to help unions organize the unorganized.
Break down the infamous red and blue map of America more finely, and there are blue — or at least purple — patches throughout the country. There’s no way forward without bringing the fight everywhere and taking the long and principled view, trusting in democracy, but organizing to make it work.
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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.