There have been worse nights, I suppose. Kristallnacht, certainly. The nights
of September 11, 2001, and December 7, 1941, were unbearably awful. And just
looking at election nights, November 1980 — when Ronald Reagan ousted Jimmy
Carter and the Republicans picked up something like 12 Senate seats — was a
But not as big a disaster as Tuesday night.
As I write early on a grim Washington morning, the Democrats — and the nation — suffered a grievous loss on Tuesday that will set the country on a more belligerent course abroad and a less socially responsible one at home.
The Senate will go from 51 Republicans to 55, among them three of the most certifiably pea-brained solons Washington has seen in some time: Kentucky’s Jim Bunning (who allowed last week as how he hadn’t read a newspaper or looked at a newscast for the past six weeks), Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn (who paused midcampaign to announce an epidemic of lesbianism in the southeast corner of his state) and South Carolina’s Jim DeMint (who suggested that pregnant single women should not be allowed to teach in public schools). In the House, there will be an additional four or five Republicans as well. With the number of Democrats in the Senate reduced to 44 (45 counting fellow traveler Jim Jeffords), it will be harder for the Dems to sustain filibusters against forthcoming Bush Supreme Court appointments and the other mischief soon to come upon us.
Some of that mischief will take place in plain view, like further tax cuts on dividends and virtually all sources of income except wages, or permitting drilling for oil and gas in Alaskan wildlife refuges. Some will be more obscure, like the National Labor Relations Board’s likely decisions to curtail the “card check” process for ratifying a union, which has been the sole way that unions have been able to grow over the past decade. Some will have the most profound long-term effects — increasing the deficit will, in time, eat into the future solvency of the Medicare and Social Security trust funds. Some things that badly need to happen — like making health coverage more affordable, like moving the nation away from the status of planetary pariah — won’t.
Tuesday night was particularly unbearable because it seemed to begin so well. The exit polling had John Kerry up in every battleground state all Tuesday afternoon. Bushies were despondent; Democrats were beginning to play the who-gets-what-Cabinet-post game. Then, over a 12-hour period, everything that could go wrong did, or at least just enough things to seriously set back the world.
What’s truly disheartening is how the Democrats failed at tasks at which they seemed to be succeeding. The ground games in Ohio and Florida had been precisely targeted, monumentally financed, and were overflowing with paid and unpaid activists at once zealous and disciplined. No one looking at the America Votes coalition — most especially at America Coming Together, the mega-get-out-the-vote operation — could fail to be impressed.
Likewise, the party was more unified behind John Kerry — and certainly against George W. Bush — than it had been behind any nominee in years. The Democrats waged the most unified effort the party has seen since 1964, when Barry Goldwater was the GOP nominee.
Yes, Kerry was hardly the pluperfect pol. He probably didn’t hammer enough on bread-and-butter issues in the Midwest. The common touch eluded him. But he was the most electable candidate in the Democratic field this year, and the Republicans would have demonized any of his primary opponents about as effectively as they demonized him. The cardinal sin of his campaign was not to counter the swift-boat attacks until it was too late. By failing to do so, and by failing to use the Democratic convention to state a clear domestic agenda and destroy Bush’s, Kerry forfeited his one opportunity to build a clear lead.
But the Democrats’ dilemma is more fundamental than an imperfect nominee. Barring a miracle in Ohio, they have no plausible national leaders. Anyone looking at Tuesday’s vote count who still thinks that Hillary Clinton would be a strong candidate in 2008 would have a hard time convincing me. Yet there are few other Democrats in the Senate with national status — Ted Kennedy and John Kerry are the best known. And not one of the nation’s four mega-states has a Democratic governor.
More fundamentally still, the Democrats are losing the cultural civil war that increasingly shapes fundamental voter alignments. The Democrats’ geographic base has shrunk into three islands — populous islands, to be sure — of modernity: the Northeast, the Pacific Coast, the industrial and upper Midwest. In time, as younger voters grow a bit older, vote in larger numbers, and spread their cultural liberalism through more of the nation, the pendulum will swing back more toward secularism, modernity and the Democrats. For now, though, the electoral map remains unchanged, in part because the cosmopolitan young tend to flee states like Ohio for the coasts or Chicago, and because Latino migration is still insignificant in many Midwestern states.
On Tuesday, certainly, the young did not vote in large enough numbers to turn the election. African-Americans’ level of support for the Democratic ticket held steady at about 90 percent; it’s possible that all the Republicans’ talk of voter suppression drove wavering blacks back into Democratic ranks. We don’t yet know enough about the Latino vote to draw good conclusions; some of the exit polling suggests Latino support for the president may have reached 40 percent, which seems improbably high.
Perhaps the most surreal and dispiriting element in the vote was how closely it tracked that of 2000. Hardly any states switched from one party to another. New Hampshire, which Bush had narrowly won four years ago, moved to Kerry. The two states that Al Gore won by the smallest margins — New Mexico and Iowa — may yet end up going for Bush. Unless Ohio magically flips, the political map of the U.S. remains unaltered except that Bush’s margins in the red states were somewhat larger.
Think of that. It’s as if the Iraqi war and the president’s miserable economic stewardship had never happened — or were counterbalanced by Bush’s war on terrorism and his religious faith. It’s as if after four years of one of the most dramatically failed presidencies of American history, the election proceeded as a cultural census, and the provincials prevailed.
And now, Bush can plausibly claim a mandate. That he couldn’t four years ago didn’t deter him from charting just about the most single-minded, divisive and factional course a president has ever taken. Expect more of the same now, only worse.
Inmates run the asylum. The men who failed to plan for the war that they began keep on mismanaging it. The men with the worst economic record since Herbert Hoover still set economic policy. The men who enraged the rest of the planet still strut their stuff. Tuesday was a long night’s journey into hell. And it’s only going to get worse.