By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Although I can’t tell you the exact time — it was after I decided that Wolf Blitzer should be hung by his beard, but before Fox News (again!) became the first network to call the decisive state for Bush — I remember thinking that the lesson of the 2004 campaign was rather simple. In a polarized country fraught with fear, the electorate will ultimately vote for something rather than nothing.
Like him or not, President Bush is Something. He offers a starkly mythic vision of life that possesses enormous visceral power:
We know that you are frightened of terrorists — we will kill them.We know you want money — we will cut taxes. We know you worry that American life has lost its moral center — we will restore traditional values.
In contrast, John Kerry never got beyond being the candidate of Anybody but Bush. Yes, he won the debates. Yes, he had a health-care plan. And yes, he belatedly talked sense about the administration’s incompetence in Iraq. But after nearly two years on the stump, his candidacy was still defined by his opponent. Running a depressingly cautious campaign, he failed to create the countermyth — or enunciate the progressive vision of America — that would let him defeat a president whose record made him ripe for the toppling. Kerry’s promises looked like Nothing.
Of course, Bush and Kerry weren’t the night’s only winners and losers. Here are some others.
Winner: Osama bin Laden. The president’s champions can bray all they want about how Bush understands the central issue of our time — that we’re fighting World War IV against Islamic fascism — but the fact remains that, three years after 9/11, bin Laden is issuing tapes mocking the president, America’s emergency services still aren’t prepared for another attack, and the war on terror has taken a disastrous detour into Iraq. Unable to conceive of fighting militant Islam with anything other than guns — time to bone up on the Cold War, pal — Bush and his fuck-you manner have turned much of the non-Islamic world fervently against the U.S. You can only imagine how much stronger these feelings are in the Islamic world. On Tuesday, bin Laden’s dream came true: America re-elected his greatest recruiting tool.
Loser: John Edwards. Remember when the senator from North Carolina was the charismatic newcomer praised for his dazzling political talent? That was three months ago. Today, he’s the guy who did nothing for the ticket. He didn’t help the Democrats win North Carolina. He didn’t help the Democrats win a single swing state. And he didn’t even make any memorable speeches. The least he could have done was pull a Lieberman and keep his Senate seat — which went over to the GOP. Had Edwards turned down Kerry’s offer, he would today be the 2008 front-runner for the nomination. Instead, the Breck Girl became the Invisible Man, imperceptible but for the stain of defeat.
Winner: Machiavelli (Mayberry Branch). Concerned only with preserving power, Karl Rove spent the last four years engaged in what pollster Pat Caddell once dubbed “the permanent campaign” — scripting every moment of Bush’s presidency according to a political calculus. And what a calculus! Under his guidance, the Bush-Cheney campaign didn’t fret about lying, pandering to the reactionary base, trashing its opponents’ courage and patriotism, or polarizing America so deeply that half the country was sickened and infuriated by its own president. All that mattered was getting one more vote than his opponent. Rove got his win. Whether such politics could destroy America doesn’t worry him at all. For in Wilde’s famous words, he’s the very embodiment of a cynic: He knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Loser: The Republican Party. Sure, the loony right will now feel empowered to pursue countless ghastly ideas: Alan Keyes for chief justice! Voting rights for fetuses! Social Security outsourced to Halliburton! But it will also be forced to deal with the consequences of its decisions. The only satisfaction in Kerry’s losing is knowing that Bush will spend his second term grappling with the mess in Iraq, the shambles of the budget, the fury of seniors at the lousy new Medicaid program, and the next big terror attack on U.S. soil — which, I’m sorry to say, he won’t be able to stop. Far from becoming the thousand-year reich predicted by Grover Norquist, in four years Republicans will be crumbling under the weight of their own mistakes, and will have nobody else to blame.
Loser: Fox News. Roger Ailes’ boys may have spent Wednesday chortling because their man won the election (not that a fair and balanced network has a favorite, of course), but the network would have been much better off had Kerry won the election. The right-wing media’s ascent is fueled by grievance and outrage — conservative talk radio was made by the Clinton years — but it’s hard to keep spanking the liberal elite five years into Republican domination of the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court, not to mention countless corporate boardrooms. During Bush’s second term, Fox will be forced to defend the increasingly indefensible. That’s lousy TV — and Ailes knows it. How much more fun — and better for ratings — to take potshots at a windsurfing Democratic president with a suspiciously good French accent.