Although I cant 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 administrations 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. Kerrys promises looked like Nothing.
Of course, Bush and Kerry werent the nights only winners and losers. Here are some others.
Winner: Osama bin Laden. The presidents champions can bray all they want about how Bush understands the central issue of our time that were 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, Americas emergency services still arent 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 Ladens 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, hes the guy who did nothing for the ticket. He didnt help the Democrats win North Carolina. He didnt help the Democrats win a single swing state. And he didnt 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 Kerrys 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 Bushs presidency according to a political calculus. And what a calculus! Under his guidance, the Bush-Cheney campaign didnt 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 doesnt worry him at all. For in Wildes famous words, hes 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 Kerrys 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, Im sorry to say, he wont 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 medias ascent is fueled by grievance and outrage conservative talk radio was made by the Clinton years but its 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 Bushs second term, Fox will be forced to defend the increasingly indefensible. Thats 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.
Loser: Exit polling. Like most people in the media, I spent Tuesday getting exit polls that showed Kerry on his way to a clear-cut victory. What went wrong? Did pollsters sample the wrong precincts? Did voters lie (perhaps embarrassed to tell the media they were voting for Bush)? Or did those electronic voting machines do exactly what everyone had feared skew the election? A fascinating thought. After all, exit polls were reckoned reliable until the 2000 presidential election. Its too early for me to know, but were the exit polls as wrong about Senate races as they were about the presidential contest?
Winner: The religious right. For months weve been hearing about how the Democrats were registering millions of new young voters. Either the kids didnt show up on Tuesday or, more likely, they just werent as liberal as everyone thought Pew estimated that Kerry led Bush among the young by 5 to 4. Meanwhile, the Republicans were registering scads of evangelicals, and unlike the kids, they voted as a bloc over 80 percent went for born-again Bush. The religious right now can stake even more enormous claim on the White House. One only wonders when (if?) it will stop behaving as if Christians are a beleaguered, abused minority in the U.S. This isnt ancient Rome, folks. Nero is one of yours.
Loser: Charles Darwin. The Polish social philosopher Leszek Kolakowski observed that one horror of communist ideology was that it had a theory of everything from genetics to composing symphonies. The same is true of Christian conservatism, which seems eager to roll back centuries of scientific discovery. For them, the Beagle hasnt landed. Thanks to this election, we can expect more and more schools to start teaching the bogus Theory of Intelligent Design (which has the added disadvantage, scientifically, of not actually being a theory) as if it were real science and not a debased offshoot of theological doctrine.
Loser: Women. Now that he no longer fears losing re-election, Bush will be free to appoint Supreme Court justices who will finally overturn Roe v. Wade. Which raises once again the question posed by my old colleague Michael Ventura: Why do pro-life activists identify so deeply with the fetus and not with the woman carrying it? Is it because they themselves feel as powerless as an unborn child?
Winner: The Anti-Bush Industry. According to definitive statistics, over the last 12 months a Bush-bashing book has been published every 4.3 seconds. If Kerry had won the election, deathless works by the likes of Michael Moore, Al Franken and the scintillating Graydon Carter would have fallen into the dustbin of history. Thanks to Dubyas victory, these books can enjoy a prosperous life in paperback. Bushs victory may be bad for the world, but its certainly good for them. And who am I to say thats a bad thing?
Powers is the author of Sore Winners: (And the Rest of Us) in George Bushs America (Doubleday).
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.