People eat animals that eat plants. If we just eliminate that middle step and eat plants directly, we would diminish our carbon footprint, decrease agricultural land usage, eliminate health risks associated with red meat and alleviate ethical concerns over animal welfare. For many of us, the major hurdle to executing this plan is that meat tastes good. Really good. By contrast, a veggie burger tastes like, well, a veggie burger. It does not satisfy the craving because it does not look, smell or taste like beef. It does not bleed like beef.
"I have won what I call political capital and now I intend to spend it." – George W. Bush, Nov. 3, 2004
Driving north from Tampa on Florida's Route 75 on Nov. 1, as the battle over who would hold political power in America was reaching a climax but the struggle over what that battle meant had yet to begin, I put down the top of my rented green convertible, turned the talk radio voices up to blaring, and commenced reading the roadside. Beside me billboards flew past, one hard upon another, as if some errant giant had cut a great deck of cards and fanned them out along each shoulder. Hour by hour, as the booming salesman's voice of proud Floridian Rush Limbaugh rumbled from the radio, warning gravely of the dangers of "voting for bin Laden" ("Haven't you noticed that bin Laden is using Democratic talking points?"), and other ominous voices reminded listeners of the "hundreds of votes" Sen. Kerry cast "against our national defense" ("In a time of terror, when our enemies are gathering ... can we afford to take that risk?"), I watched rush by, interspersed with the blaring offers of "Florida Citrus! One Bag $1!" and "Need Help With Sinkholes?," a series of perhaps 50 garish signs announcing an approaching "Adult Toy Café!" and "Adult Toy Extravaganza!" and then "We Bare All!" and finally, the capper, "All Nude – Good Food – Truckers Welcome!"
It wasn't long before this billboard parade had acquired its stark spiritual counterpoint – "Jesus Is Still the Answer!" – and by the time I reached the promised "extravaganza" – a sad and windowless two-room shack just off the highway, smaller than most of the signs advertising it – I found, standing just down the road from the pathetic little house of sin, a resplendent white church more than twice its size. In the world of American hucksterism, the sin may be the draw but the payoff's always in redemption.
This was perhaps 36 hours before an army of self-interested commentators, self-appointed spiritual leaders, and television pundits hot for a simple storyline had seized on the answers to a clumsily posed exit poll question – more than one respondent in five, offered seven choices, had selected "moral values" as their "most important issue" – and used those answers to transform the results of the 2004 election into a rousing statement of Americans' disgust with abortion, promiscuity, R-rated movies, gay marriage, late-night television, and other "Hollywood-type" moral laxity. Some, like the Rev. Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, wrote the president with admirable directness to remind him what the election meant, and what he now owed:
"In your re-election, God has graciously granted America – though she doesn't deserve it – a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate. ... Don't equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ. ... Undoubtedly, you will have opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the Congress in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and limited government. You have four years – a brief time only – to leave an imprint for righteousness upon this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God. ... If you have weaklings around you who do not share your biblical values, shed yourself of them."
And yet the voters of Union County, Florida's smallest, whom I found crowding the election supervisor's office in tiny Lake Butler, seemed unaware that they had been impelled to vote by a newfound quest for redemption. In Lake Butler, turnout was higher than anyone could remember; in Union County, voter registration had risen by 25 percent over 2000, when I had last visited. But none of the voters who spoke to me there volunteered a word about "moral values." Their answers tended to be much more concrete. "It's because of 9/11 – you know, because of the terrorism," said Babs Montpetit – a.k.a. Miss Babs, election supervisor of Union County since 1985. "Because of the terrorism people are afraid not to vote." Through the window behind her I could see Lake Butler's main street, with its scattering of stores and bars – a tiny, isolated place, with barely seven thousand registered voters, far from any major city. Why should its citizens worry about terrorism? "Why, who could have expected that would happen, that business in New York?" Miss Babs asked me in return, leaning forward and lowering her voice. "You just don't know."
Back in the car, I turned on the radio to find the Florida news feed, which led with this story: "A suspicious package that seemed to be vibrating forced the closing of the State Board of Elections today. The parcel, it turned out, was an ordinary package that happened to have been placed next to an air conditioner, the breeze from which accounted for the apparent vibrating action. ..." This embarrassing incident, which in other times might have been treated as a humorous item about the haplessness of government officials, was reported in dead seriousness: a dark dispatch from the front lines. As I left Lake Butler, stepping on the accelerator, I turned the radio up and the air around me filled again with the booming voice of Rush Limbaugh, in full and impressive rant:
"Osama bin Laden cannot launch an attack on the United States of America. Osama bin Laden can only deliver a tape, and on that tape, bin Laden appeals to the very appeasers in this country who would allow him to gain strength by agreeing with what he says and voting for the man who is being quoted by bin Laden. John Kerry, as much as Michael Moore, was quoted by Osama bin Laden in that video that we all saw. ... Michael Moore is not on the ballot; John Kerry is. Osama bin Laden parroting John Kerry in his tape on Friday. We have a unique responsibility to lead the world in confronting and defeating this evil threat. ..."
"Returning to the days of appeasement, trying to meet a 'global test' of world opinion, ignoring threats from hostile nations and groups is a deadly mistake we simply can't afford to make. ... The Democrat Party in this country is eager to point to the things bin Laden said and suggest that he is right – a man who happily murdered three thousand Americans and is eager to do so over and over and over again! You say, 'Rush, I haven't heard the Democrats say that.' Oh, you can find it on their Web sites. You can find people who are going to vote for John Kerry who have said this. You can find people on various Democrat Web sites who are excited bin Laden said what he said. They're hoping for an Osama smackdown of Bush, if I may quote one of the things I saw."
Interspersed with Limbaugh's extraordinarily fluid and persuasively deceptive tirade – heard, according to his home station in Sacramento, by "nearly 20 million people over 600 stations" – came the political advertisements, one after another, which turned skillfully around a concentrated version of the same plotline: First, the threat America faces today is as great as any in the country's history. Second, that threat makes this election "the most important in history," because if Americans make "the wrong choice" they could make themselves and their families more vulnerable. Third, therefore, Americans must vote, and must make "the right choice." Fear is joined skillfully to risk: a risk that is personal and looming, and – most important – that could very well increase if the election goes the wrong way.
The script of the famous "Wolves" television ad, with its simple image of a pack of ravenous, circling carnivores readying for the attack, embodied this plotline in perhaps its purest form: "In an increasingly dangerous world ... Even after the first terrorist attack on America ... John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America's intelligence operations. By six billion dollars ... Cuts so deep they would have weakened America's defenses. And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm." A vote for Bush is a vote to stave off that weakness. More important, a failure to vote could make way for that "weakening of America's defenses." As I headed to Jacksonville, grave voices from the radio warned again and again of what was at stake:
"John Kerry. The most liberal man in the Senate. The most liberal person to ever run for president. He voted to cut our military ... To severely cut our intelligence agencies ... He voted for higher taxes 350 times ... And now he wants to be our president ... We live in a dangerous world that requires strong and steady leadership. John Kerry is a risky choice for America ... a risk we cannot take."
This rhetoric of risk carries forward a narrative that Republicans began shaping soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and that came boldly to the fore as a political strategy the following May, when Vice President Cheney declared that the statements of several Democratic senators, who had rather timidly questioned some of the decisions made in conducting the war in Afghanistan, were "unworthy of national leaders in a time of war." Though this bold shot across the bow essentially put an end to any overt Democratic criticism of the administration on the conduct of the war on terror, Republicans clearly realized that when it came to terrorism and national security, as Karl Rove observed during a speech to the Republican National Committee in January 2002, they could "go to the country on this issue, because [Americans] trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America."
That autumn Republicans triumphed in the midterm elections, largely because they effectively exploited Americans' apparent willingness to believe that the Republicans could better protect the country. This strategy was displayed most dramatically in Saxby Chambliss's victory over the incumbent Max Cleland in the Senate race in Georgia, in which the challenger portrayed Cleland, a highly decorated veteran who had lost three limbs in Vietnam, as an ally of bin Laden. Though the claims were obviously trumped up – they rested on the fact that Cleland had not instantly voted for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security – the images of Cleland's and bin Laden's faces side by side in effect doomed the incumbent.
The attacks of Sept. 11 restored to Republicans their traditional political advantage in matters of "national security" and "national defense" – an advantage the party had lost with the end of the Cold War – and Republicans capitalized on that advantage, not only by running President Bush as "a war president," as he repeatedly identified himself, but by presenting a vote for John Kerry – whom the Republicans succeeded in defining (with a good deal of help from the Swift Boat Veterans, and from Kerry himself) as indecisive, opportunistic, and untrustworthy – as a vote that was inherently, dangerously risky. The emphasis placed on Bush's much-promoted personal strengths – decisiveness, determination, reliability, transparency – served to base his candidacy at once on "moral values" and on "national security," in effect making possession of the first essential to protect the second. Bush's decisiveness was put forward as the flip side of Kerry's dangerous vacillation, the answer to the threat of weakness Kerry was alleged to pose. This equation was dramatized, perfected, and repeated, with much discipline and persistence, in thousands of advertisements, speeches, and "talking heads" discussion programs on conservative networks, especially Fox. (In Lake Butler, Miss Babs's husband, she told me, "watches only Fox News. He believes all the other channels are propaganda.") Despite all the talk about "moral values," the 2004 election turned on a fulcrum of fear.
Famously, as I have mentioned, more than one in five Americans – 22 percent – who spoke to pollsters as they left the voting places said, when presented with seven choices, that their "most important issue" had been "moral values," and of these four out of five cast their votes for George Bush. On the other hand, 19 percent selected "terrorism" and another 15 percent chose "Iraq," meaning that more than one in three voters said the war – the Iraq war or the "war on terror" – was their most important issue. In fact, the most striking single result of the exit polls was Bush's much stronger appeal to women – many of them, apparently, the much-discussed "security moms," who were thought to be especially concerned about protecting their families. All of these numbers and conclusions, needless to say, bear further scrutiny.
Using an exit poll to draw precise conclusions from a national election is like using a very blurry magnifying glass to analyze the brushstrokes in a huge and complicated pointillist painting. Our tools for judging what elections "mean" are quite crude, depending as they do on the willingness of voters to speak to pollsters, on their ability to speak honestly about the choices they made, and on their particular talents for understanding and expressing their own motives. As we saw this year – when faulty exit polls that suggested an overwhelming Kerry victory significantly distorted election-day press coverage – they can often produce downright wrong conclusions. Despite the "scientific" feel that numbers lend to any analysis, there is more art to it than science and, despite the impression that election and analysis are starkly separate, much analysis, as the Reverend Jones's letter to President Bush suggests, simply carries forward beyond the election a self-interested political narrative that preceded it.
If one stands back a bit and lets the drifting smoke of the pundits and the preachers and the exit poll analysts begin to clear, three interesting facts about the 2004 election stand out. The first is that the election was very close – historically close, in fact. The table below shows the margins of victory, in percentage of the popular vote and in electoral votes, of sitting Republican presidents who have won reelection during the last hundred years.
Margins of Victory: Republican Presidents Re-elected During the Last Hundred Years
1904 Theodore Roosevelt: 17% Popular Vote; 196 Electoral Vote
1956 Dwight D. Eisenhower: 16% Popular Vote; 384 Electoral Vote
1972 Richard M. Nixon: 23% Popular Vote; 503 Electoral Vote
1984 Ronald Reagan: 18% Popular Vote; 512 Electoral Vote
2004 George W. Bush: 2% Popular Vote; 34 Electoral Vote
As these numbers show, incumbency is a huge advantage; nonetheless, Bush's reelection was a squeaker, the closest for a Republican in more than a century. Four years after the historically close election of 2000, and after a hard-fought eight-month campaign in which the candidates, the parties, and so-called "independent" groups spent more than a billion dollars to woo voters, the electoral map hardly changed. Only three small states switched sides: the Democrats picked up New Hampshire (four electoral votes) and the Republicans very narrowly won Iowa (eight) and New Mexico (five). Bush had a net gain of only nine electoral votes, which, added to the seven that the Republicans gained through reapportionment, gave him his narrow margin of victory.
Had fewer than 60,000 Ohio voters decided to cast their ballots for the Democrat rather than the Republican (and according to the exit polls one voter in twenty decided whom to vote for on election day), John Kerry would have won Ohio's twenty electoral votes and with them the presidency – and would have entered the White House in January 2005, as George W. Bush had done in January 2001, having won the votes of fewer Americans than the man he defeated. About 2,991,437 fewer, which, as I write, is George W. Bush's margin of victory, out of 122,124,783 votes cast for president.
Which leads to the second interesting fact about the 2004 election: a great many more people turned out to vote, nearly seventeen million more, than turned out four years ago. Nearly 60 percent of those Americans eligible cast ballots in 2004, an increase in turnout of almost 6 percent. In the so-called battleground states, where vast sums were spent on advertising and one could not escape the barrage of political messages blaring from television and radio and pouring out of the telephone and the mailbox, the increase in turnout was even greater. A million and a half more Floridians cast ballots than had four years before: in 2000 – itself an intensely fought election in which turnout substantially increased – fewer than 56 percent of eligible Floridians voted; in 2004 more than 65 percent did.
This leads, finally, to the third interesting fact about the election, which is that in the days leading up to it many of the "indicators" which political professionals have traditionally taken to suggest whether or not an incumbent will win were running distinctly against President Bush. Most notably, more Americans (55 percent) said they thought the country was "headed in the wrong direction" than those who said it was headed in the right one, and fewer than half of Americans polled (49 percent) said that they approved of the president's performance in office. More disapproved than approved of the president's handling of foreign policy (49 percent to 45 percent) and of the economy (51 percent to 43 percent). Finally more Americans disapproved than approved of the president's handling of Iraq (50 percent to 45 percent), his most important foreign policy, and, perhaps most strikingly, more than two Americans in three told pollsters that Mr. Bush's tax cuts – his signal domestic accomplishment – had either been bad for the economy (17 percent) or had not made much difference (51 percent).
The President went into the election, then, with Americans mildly pessimistic about the direction of the country and broadly disapproving of his performance and his policies. Most polls showed the race "too close to call," and many of the major indicators, "historically" speaking, suggested the incumbent would lose. Small wonder that so many experts, including apparently the president's own political team, were willing to believe the election-day exit polls that into the early evening showed their man losing by a considerable margin. (The widely circulated numbers from the respected polling firm Zogby International, for example, showed Mr. Kerry winning 311 electoral votes.) The fact was that though President Bush was personally popular, many of his major policies were not. The problem for the Bush campaign was how to turn attention away from policies voters didn't like – particularly the President's decisions on Iraq and his conduct of the war there – toward policies they approved of – particularly his conduct of "the war on terror" (into which Iraq would be "folded") – and toward his personal qualities.
"If your babies were left all alone in the dead of night, who would you rather have setting there on the porch – John Kerry and his snowboard or George W. with his shotgun?" – Sean Michaels, professional wrestler, warming up the crowd, Tinker Field, Oct. 30, 2004
On a beautiful October evening three days before the election, Orlando's Tinker Field had become an enormous bowl filled with 17,000 screaming, chanting Bush partisans floating in a sea of red, white, and blue. On the stadium wall hung a great 50-foot high sign proclaiming that George W. Bush was "MOVING AMERICA FORWARD!" Inside, flanking the stage in letters that dwarfed it, and echoed by smaller signs bobbing up and down everywhere in the crowd, was the terse slogan "AMERICA: SAFER STRONGER BETTER!" And then, precisely placed around the stadium in enormous letters, were the words on which the campaign was built: "STRENGTH! LEADERSHIP! CHARACTER! INTEGRITY!" Disciplined, organized, relentless, the Bush campaign would never be accused of subtlety.
"Well ..., I'm just so proud of the way he handled 9/11 – I mean, that was ... amazing!" Dot Richardson-Pinto told me as we sat together near the podium. When I'd asked why she supported the President, she had had to search a moment for an answer, and not entirely because she couldn't understand how it could be that anyone wouldn't. She'd had to think for a moment, I came to realize, because her ardor had so much more to do with who he was than with what he did. And who he was could be summarized by those four giant words looming over the stage.
"It doesn't matter if the man can talk," Ms. Richardson-Pinto told me. "Sometimes, when someone's real articulate you can't trust what he says, you know?" As the security helicopters circled overhead, and the crowd launched into yet one more chant of "Kerry is scary!" I was struck again by how precisely the campaign had managed to define Bush's strengths in perfect contradistinction to what they had defined as Kerry's weaknesses, and then to devote all its resources to emphasizing both. Every repetition of what Bush was – and the repetitions were unending, and intricately varied – was crafted to be a perfect reminder of what his opponent was not. Practically every word emitted by the campaign, whether through the thousands and thousands of television and radio commercials, or the words of the campaign spokesmen, or the speeches of the candidate himself, moved in gorgeously disciplined lockstep to drive home to voters not only who George W. Bush was but who his opponent was not. As Bush became more and more Bush ("STRENGTH! LEADERSHIP! CHARACTER! INTEGRITY!"), Kerry, little-known, chilly, distant, was turned into the anti-Bush, a weak, shallow, flipflopping shillyshallyer whose every word was an attempt to deceive Americans about who he really was.
In blue shirt and black slacks the president strode into the stadium, flanked by his wife and brother Jeb, and raised his hands to the rock-star reception. When the thunderous chants – "Viva Bush! Viva Bush!" – had finally dropped off to a scattering of shouts, he launched into a speech whose terms I knew well but whose effectiveness, with Ms. Richardson-Pinto sitting beside me, I only now understood. George W. Bush seemed to be speaking directly to her, to be bringing her into his family:
"Sometimes I'm a little too blunt – I get that from my mother. [Huge cheers] Sometimes I mangle the English language – I get that from my dad. [Laughter and cheers] But you always know where I stand. You can't say that for my opponent. ... The fact is that all progress on other issues depends on the safety of our citizens. The most solemn duty of the American president is to protect the American people. [Loud cheers. Chants of "Four More Years! Four More Years! Four More Years!"] The president must make tough decisions and stand behind them. Especially in time of war mixed signals only confuse our friends and embolden our enemies. If America shows uncertainty or weakness in these troubling times the world will drift toward tragedy – and this will not happen on my watch!"
In a few blunt lines Bush had subsumed everything else beneath the preeminent shining banner of the war on terror, and subsumed that war beneath his own reputation for forthrightness, decisiveness, and strength. And he had identified uncertainty, hesitation, vacillation – even the sort of nit-picking that would seek to separate the war in Iraq from the war on terror – as not simply mistaken or foolish but dangerous. "Relentless"..."Steadfast"... Determined": these words came fast and strong, again and again. And then the climactic line: "We will fight the terrorists across the globe so we do not have to fight them here at home!" It drew a huge response and after the applause and chanting had finally died down he followed up with his most important words about the current shooting war: "I will use every asset at our disposal to protect the American people and one of the best assets we have is freedom! Freedom is powerful! Freedom is not America's gift to the world, it is the Almighty's gift to everyone.... Iraq is still dangerous but Iraq will have free elections in January – think how far that country has come! On good days and bad days, whether the polls are up or the polls are down, I am determined to protect the American people!"
The Iraq war was not only irrevocably part of the war on terror – who could think, gazing at the car bombs and beheadings every night on television, that they were any different? – it had become a leading part of the ideological response to the threat of terror: a first step in the expansion of the holy cause of freedom. As Reagan had dared to go beyond staunch anticommunism and imagine a world after communism's collapse, so Bush looked beyond the present chaotic world of terror to see a blessed land of freedom. ("In this election, my opponent has spent a lot of time talking about a day that is gone. I'm talking about the day that is coming.") It was a striking vision, clear and absolutely simple to understand. And it linked, firmly and directly, the so-called "moral values" of justice, fairness, and the Almighty to the cause of national security, and specifically to the war on terror that the Bush people kept relentlessly at the campaign's heart. "Terror," "Iraq," and "moral values," supposedly separate "important issues," had been seamlessly joined.
Of course whatever its virtues as a campaign theme, the picture the President offered was not especially "fact-dependent." Many well-known facts – on which Kerry, in his campaign, had laid such stress – were either irrelevant to it (the missing weapons of mass destruction, which went unmentioned) or directly contradicted by it (the failure to demonstrate connections between Iraq and the attacks of Sept. 11). But the facts did not matter – not necessarily because those in the stadium were ignorant of them, though some certainly were, but because the president was offering in their place a worldview that was whole, complete, comprehensible, and thus impermeable to statements of fact that clearly contradicted it. The thousands cheering around me in that Orlando stadium, and the many others who would come to support Bush on election day, faced a stark choice: either discard the facts, or give up the clear and comforting worldview that they contradicted. They chose to disregard the facts.
Two weeks before the election, after the Senate Intelligence Committee report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the Duelfer Report, and after intensive news coverage of the administration's failure to find such weapons in Iraq, nearly three Bush supporters in four told pollsters they believed Iraq had either had weapons of mass destruction (47 percent) or had had a "major program" to develop them (26 percent). Nearly three in five said they believed that the widely publicized Duelfer Report, which directly contradicted this, had in fact confirmed it. Three in four believed that Iraq had either been directly involved in the Sept. 11 attacks (20 percent) or had given al Qaeda "substantial support" (55 percent), and nearly three in ten wrongly believed that the 9/11 Commission had confirmed that they had. Similar majorities believed that the President and his administration still publicly supported these positions.
Many of the Bush supporters I spoke to were educated, well-informed people. They watched the news and took pleasure in debating politics. And yet they clung to views about important matters of fact that were demonstrably wrong. Steven Kull, the public opinion expert at the University of Maryland who authored the study from which these numbers are drawn, acknowledges that although one reason they "cling so tightly to beliefs that have been so visibly refuted ... is that they continue to hear the Bush administration confirming these beliefs," the prevalence, and persistence, of these misperceptions is "probably not due to a simple failure to pay attention to the news." Rather, Kull writes, "Bush supporters cling to these beliefs because they are necessary for their support for the decision to go to war with Iraq": "Asked whether the U.S. should have gone to war with Iraq if U.S. intelligence had concluded that Iraq was not making WMD or providing support to al Qaeda, 58 percent of Bush supporters said the US should not have, and 61 percent assume that in this case the president would not have. To support the president and to accept that he took the U.S. to war based on mistaken assumptions is difficult to bear, especially in light of the continuing costs in terms of lives and money. Apparently, to avoid this cognitive dissonance, Bush supporters suppress awareness of unsettling information."
This analysis suggests the difficulties Kerry faced in pressing home his highly "fact-dependent" argument that the Iraq war was separate from the war on terror and thus a mistaken distraction from it. Not only did accepting the point require a good deal of sophistication and knowledge, not only did it seem to contradict the evidence on Americans' television screens each night, which often showed vivid depictions of terrorism in Iraq; it also seemed to imply to some voters that they should take what must have seemed an unpatriotic position. For if they accepted the false pretenses on which the war had been based, how could they go on supporting it, as Kerry, somewhat illogically and even dishonestly, seemed to be asking them to do?
Those running the Bush campaign clearly counted on the talent and influence of impressive propagandists like Limbaugh, and the help they received from an often acquiescent mainstream press. More, they counted on the president's reputation for forthrightness, together with the political folk wisdom that many people, particularly "during wartime," believe "the man, not the fact." When Bush, in full rhetorical flower in Tinker Field, declared to his delirious audience that "Americans need a president who doesn't think terrorism is 'a nuisance,'" my neighbor Ms. Richardson-Pinto nudged me with her elbow and shouted over the laughter and cheers, "Do you believe Kerry said that?" Actually, I shouted into her ear, Kerry hadn't said that, and then I paraphrased for her the actual quotation: "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance. As a former law enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution ... [and] illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where ... it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life." Hardly exceptional; indeed, Bush himself had only weeks before said something very similar. Ms. Richardson-Pinto, a well-educated, worldly woman – a doctor, and a two-time Olympic gold medalist in women's softball – listened to me intently, nodded politely, began to form a question, and then, thinking better of it, looked at me for a moment longer before turning back to the president. She'd had a choice of what – or rather whom – to believe; and she'd made it.
"Saddam would never have disarmed." – George W. Bush, first presidential debate, Sept. 30, 2004
Seven o'clock on the evening of Election Day and the office of the election supervisor in downtown Jacksonville was mobbed, encircled by a raggedy line of hundreds and hundreds of late voters. In the street in front an enormous crowd of Democrats chanted, cheered, and sang, filling every inch of space and spilling out into the streets. Car after car, horn blaring, made its way carefully through the crowd, the drivers leaning out to administer high fives and to cheer, and cheer again. When word of the early exit-poll numbers seeming to confirm an overwhelming Kerry victory swept through the crowd, hundreds broke into song, to the tune of the old civil rights classic, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around": "Ain't gonna let nobody steal my vote/ Steal my vote, steal my vote/ Ain't gonna let nobody steal my vote. ..." It had been Jacksonville where in 2000 the infamous "caterpillar ballot" had led officials to discard tens of thousands of votes, votes cast overwhelmingly by African Americans. As I stood watching the dancing and the celebration – "We gonna elect one, not select one!" – the sense people had of justice finally being done was vivid. I had felt it all day as I went from polling place to polling place in the downtown neighborhoods of the city – they were overwhelmed with voters, and overwhelmed with a sense that a wrong would be righted.
What I didn't find was any sense of strong support for John Kerry as a politician or a leader, or even a feeling of familiarity with him. The personality of Bush seemed vivid among voters, whether they admired him or hated him; the personality of Kerry was faint, indistinct, and where I found its mark most strongly was among those Bush voters who saw the Massachusetts senator, or the depiction of him that the Bush campaign had succeeded in creating, as a threat to their security. To counteract this Kerry would have had to become a known quality, trusted, familiar; but even after the hundreds of millions spent on advertising and his strong performance in the debates, for most voters he seemed a distant figure. He never entered that great stock company of celebrities – the "Oprah touring company" – that ordinary Americans welcome into their living rooms and believe they have somehow come to know. Love him or hate him, the president had long since taken his place as a recognizable, powerful personality in that company; John Kerry never did.
I had seen Kerry speak two nights before in Tampa, before a crowd fully as delirious as the one that had greeted George W. Bush the night before. Though the Kerry crowd was recognizably younger and, for lack of a better word, "hipper," most of those present would not have seemed out of place at either event. Partly hidden behind a forest of yellow "Two More Days!" signs, Kerry, by far the tallest person on stage, stretched and shifted as he was introduced, raising and lowering himself on the balls of his feet: he was plainly exhausted. Nonetheless he gave a powerful, well-crafted speech, though built around the uninspired phrases "a fresh start" and "first we must choose." And then he turned to Iraq:
"The president tells us that in Iraq, his 'strategy is succeeding. ...' But every day on our TV screens, we see the hard truths. We see the consequences of this President's decision to rush to war without a plan to win the peace: the loss of over 1,100 of our brave men and women in uniform. A cost of $225 billion with billions more on the way. Entire regions controlled by insurgents and terrorists. By pushing our allies aside, George Bush's catastrophic mismanagement of this war has left America to bear almost 90 percent of the costs and 90 percent of the coalition casualties. We relied on Afghan warlords instead of American troops to hunt down Osama bin Laden, and the man responsible for murdering more than three thousand Americans walked away. ... On Tuesday, we have the opportunity to set a new course in Iraq...open up a new chapter in our relationship with the rest of the world ... and do whatever it takes to defend America and keep our troops safe.... When I'm president, I will bring other nations to our side and train Iraqis so that we can succeed and bring our troops home. As president, I will fight a tougher, smarter, more effective war on terror. We will hunt down, capture, and kill the terrorists wherever they are. I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president."
Kerry's indictment of Bush's stewardship of the war was strong, but he offered little by way of an alternative; his "new course in Iraq" amounted to bringing "other nations to our side" to train Iraqis. He would "do whatever it takes to defend America" – a broad, empty assertion that depended entirely on the trust a prospective voter was willing to grant him. And though Kerry struggled to separate Iraq and the war on terror, not just the imagery of the war – the descent of Iraq into a kind of terrorism that, ironically enough, seemed to confirm the President's insistence that it was in fact "the central front of the war on terror" – but Kerry's own discussion of Iraq and terrorism only seemed to bring them together.
For Kerry, this proved fatal. If Bush had succeeded in joining Iraq and terrorism and then wrestling to the very center of the election his chosen question – whom do you trust to protect you and your family from terrorism? – he had also succeeded, for too many of those famous "swing voters," in providing the answer. The exit polls make this clear: nearly six in ten voters said they trusted Bush to "handle terrorism." Nearly six in ten said they did not trust Kerry to do the same.
Of course it is easy to say, as many have, that Kerry's policy on Iraq and terrorism was inadequate or incoherent. It is much harder to say what that policy should have been. Kerry, it is true, did not prove himself a very creative or resourceful candidate, and the Bush campaign was ruthless and brilliant in seizing on his missteps – his mention of a "global test" for United States intervention abroad, for example, and his unfortunate statement that "I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it" – and using them to color in vivid tones the picture they wanted to paint of the senator. Kerry gave them a good deal of help, particularly by focusing on Vietnam, and attempting to make his heroic service as a naval officer there a central part of his campaign while avoiding discussion of his more controversial leadership in the antiwar movement after he returned. The so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, incensed by the antiwar Kerry, did great damage to the reputation of heroic warrior Kerry, and thereby did much to bolster the point that the Bush campaign, with the help of tens of millions of dollars in television and radio ads, had sought to drive home to American voters: that Kerry was inauthentic, untrustworthy, and "unfit to lead."
But Kerry's mistakes, however costly, in fact concealed a deeper problem, which was that Democrats themselves, haunted by the traditional charge of "weakness on national security" (which of course helped lead to Kerry's nomination), were deeply divided on what should be done about the Iraq war, with as many favoring withdrawal as not . This is not surprising: the war itself, a costly, tangled, unending mess, admits of no obvious solution. The war may well be President Bush's greatest wound; but for candidate Bush the ability to depict Iraq as "the central front of the war on terror" and trumpet his willingness to confront the war and "stay the course" to victory was an audacious and astonishing act of political legerdemain. He took what looked to be his greatest weakness and made it his opponent's.
Kerry might have done better to declare early on that Iraq and the war on terror could no longer be separated, and to argue, forcefully and consistently, that Bush had conducted both incompetently – so incompetently, in fact, that four more years of his leadership would put Americans at ever greater risk. But to have been convincing, such a strategy, at least implicitly, would have meant accepting the necessity of going to war in Iraq – a position that many committed Democratic voters strongly disputed and that Kerry's own past statements tended to contradict. And it would have meant demonstrating the kind of single-mindedness, relentlessness, and rigor that the Bush campaign managed but the Kerry forces never did. Either way, as long as Bush was able to succeed in melding Iraq and the war on terror and placing them firmly at the center of the campaign, Kerry faced an incumbent "war president" who, whatever his missteps, Americans would be hesitant to abandon – without a very good reason for doing so. Kerry never produced that reason.
At about half past eight, as I stood amid the roiling sea of jubilant Democrats outside that election supervisor's office in downtown Jacksonville, I began to hear, through the civil rights songs and the laughter and cheers, a distant, booming, amplified chant. One by one people in the crowd before me heard it, and began turning to look down the street whence the chanting came, and then to look at one another. The voices grew louder and louder, and finally we saw their source: a group of twenty or so young men – they looked like football players – led by a beefy fellow holding high a blue Bush/Cheney sign, and chanting through a megaphone in a deep baritone: "Bush Won the State! Bush Won the State! Bush Won the State!"
The dream of a Democratic victory had been fueled by the enormous turnout and by a handful of faulty exit polls. Everyone had believed it, even those distinctly downcast Republicans I'd visited at their Jacksonville headquarters earlier that afternoon. But the dream had ended.
The Democrats had come remarkably close. They had matched the Republicans in fund-raising dollar for dollar and had mounted an unprecedented "ground game." On election day they managed the impressive feat of bringing eight million more voters to the polls than they had four years before. But the Republicans managed to bring in eleven million additional voters. George W. Bush, having gained half a million fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000, defeated John Kerry by three million votes.
Still, the victory was "narrow but clear," as William Kristol described it, with candor rare among Republicans after the election. For all the talk of "moral values," had 60,000 Ohioans made a different choice on election day, we would now be discussing the unpopularity of the Iraq war and the President's failed economic policies. After his narrow but clear victory, George W. Bush remained a popular leader promoting unpopular policies. And though he managed to convince enough Americans that Iraq was "the central front in the war on terror," the truth remains that he has saddled himself and the country he leads with a worsening, increasingly unpopular shooting war that offers no obvious means of escape.
Now he faces a newly emboldened set of claimants. Though several million more evangelical voters turned out in 2004, and thus were critical to Bush's victory, they do not seem to have formed a higher percentage of Republican voters than they had four years before. Still, having accounted, in their increased numbers, for a third of Bush's margin of victory, the evangelicals unquestionably form the Republican Party's most reliable and aggressive base of supporters. Their leaders have been quick and aggressive in claiming full credit for the triumph and the press has been happy to play along. As so often in politics, the appearance, through repetition, becomes its own reality.
Leaders like the unabashedly direct Rev. Bob Jones III now demand, in the name of moral values and the political redemption they claim to have brought the President, that Bush "pass legislation defined by Biblical norms" and that he "leave an imprint of righteousness upon this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God." This is a tall order, and one fraught, like the war, with considerable political peril – from moderate voters, who, for example, support outlawing "partial-birth abortion" but oppose outlawing abortion itself; and even, perhaps, from Democrats who may one day come to focus on what they have gained in this election rather than what they have lost. After all the recriminations and all the analyses of how the party must change, the fact remains that the Democrats came very close to bringing off an almost unprecedented achievement: turning out an incumbent president in a time of war. They failed, but not entirely; they now confront a narrowly reelected president, encumbered with a grim and intractable war, constrained by a huge deficit of his own creation, and faced with increasingly extreme demands that will be satisfied only at great political cost.
"Anti-Semitism" today is a genuine problem. It is also an illusory problem. The distinction between the two is one of those contemporary issues that most divide Europe from the United States. The overwhelming majority of Europeans abhors recent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions and takes them very seriously. But it is generally recognized in Europe that these attacks are the product of local circumstances and are closely tied to contemporary political developments in Europe and elsewhere. Thus the increase in anti-Jewish incidents in France or Belgium is correctly attributed to young people, frequently of Muslim or Arab background, the children or grandchildren of immigrants. This is a new and disconcerting social challenge and it is far from clear how it should be addressed, beyond the provision of increased police protection. But it is not, as they say, "your grandfather's anti-Semitism."
As seen from the United States, however, Europe – especially "old," or Western, Europe – is in the grip of recidivism: reverting to type, as it were. Last February Rockwell Schnabel (the U.S. ambassador to the European Union) spoke of anti-Semitism in Europe "getting to a point where it is as bad as it was in the '30s." In May 2002 George Will wrote in the Washington Post that anti-Semitism among Europeans "has become the second – and final? – phase of the struggle for a 'final solution to the Jewish Question.'" These are not isolated, hysterical instances: Among American elites as well as in the population at large, it is widely assumed that Europe, having learned nothing from its past, is once again awash in the old anti-Semitism.
The American view clearly reflects an exaggerated anxiety. The problem of anti-Semitism in Europe today is real, but it needs to be kept in proportion. According to the Stephen Roth Institute at Tel Aviv University, there were 517 anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2002 (503 in 2003) and 51 in Belgium (twenty-nine in 2003). These ranged from anti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish-owned shops to Molotov cocktails thrown into synagogues in Paris, Lyons and elsewhere.
Measured by everything from graffiti to violent assaults, anti-Semitism has indeed been on the increase in some European countries in recent years; but then it has in America as well. The American Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported 60 anti-Semitic incidents on U.S. college campuses alone in 1999, 106 in 2002 and 68 in 2003. The ADL recorded 1,559 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2002 (1,557 in 2003), up from 906 in 1986. Even if anti-Semitic aggression in France, Belgium and elsewhere in Europe has been grievously underreported, there is no evidence to suggest that it is much more widespread in Europe than in the United States.
As for expressions of anti-Semitic opinion: Evidence from the European Union's Eurobarometer surveys, the French polling service SOFRES and the ADL's own surveys all point in the same direction. There is today in many European countries, as in the United States, a continuing tolerance for mild verbal anti-Semitism, as well as a continuing propensity to believe longstanding stereotypes about Jews: e.g., that they have a disproportionate influence in economic life. But the same polls confirm that young people all over Europe are much less tolerant of prejudice than their parents were. Among non-Muslim French youth, especially, anti-Semitic sentiment has steadily declined and is now negligible. A majority of young people questioned in France in January 2002 believed that we should speak more, not less, about the Holocaust; and nearly nine out of 10 of them agreed that attacks on synagogues were "scandalous." These figures are broadly comparable to results from similar surveys taken in the United States.
The one thing on which European and American commentators can agree is that there is a link between hostility to Jews and events in the Middle East. But they draw diametrically opposed conclusions as to the meaning of this link. It is increasingly clear to observers in France, for example, that assaults on Jews in working-class suburbs of big cities are typically driven by frustration and anger at the government of Israel. Jews and Jewish institutions are a convenient and vulnerable local surrogate. Moreover, the rhetorical armory of traditional European anti-Semitism – the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; Jews' purported economic power and conspiratorial networks; even blood libels – has been pressed into service by the media in Damascus, Cairo and elsewhere. Thanks to satellite television, anti-Jewish images and myths can now spread with ease across the youthful Arab diaspora.
But whereas most Europeans believe that the problem originates in the Middle East and must therefore be addressed there, the ADL and many American commentators conclude rather that there is no longer any difference between being "against" Israel and "against" Jews: i.e., that in Europe anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have become synonymous. But that is palpably false. Some of the highest levels of pro-Palestinian sympathy in Europe today are recorded in Denmark, a country that also registers as one of the least anti-Semitic by the ADL's own criteria – and the ADL has worked harder than anyone to propagate the image of rampant European anti-Semitism. Another country with a high level of support for the Arabs of Palestine is the Netherlands; yet according to the ADL the Dutch have the lowest anti-Semitic quotient in Europe, and 83 percent of Dutch citizens believe the government should take a role in combating anti-Semitism.
In other words, some of the most widespread pro-Palestinian and even anti-Zionist views are to be found in countries that have long been – and still are – decidedly philo-Semitic. And there is good evidence that Europeans have considerably more balanced views than Americans on the Israel-Palestine conflict in general. Thus, although Europeans are more likely to sympathize with the Palestinians than with Israel, they do so only by a ratio of 24:15, according to the ADL. Americans, by contrast, sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, by a ratio of 55:18 (Gallup).
Europeans are also better placed to appreciate that old-style European anti-Semites were, and are, frequently quite sympathetic to Israel – and the worse Israel behaves, the fonder they become. Thus the French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, in an interview in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz in April 2002, expressed his "understanding" of Ariel Sharon's harsh policies ("A war on terror is a brutal thing"), comparable in his opinion to France's anti-terrorist practices in Algeria 40 years earlier, which he thought were no less justified.
The source of American anxiety and confusion is the unstinting support given by the United States to Israel ($3 billion per annum and uncritical backing for all its actions), and the ensuing sentiment among many Americans that since criticism of Israel is close to impermissible, anti-Zionist opinions must be anti-Semitic in origin. Indeed, the gap separating Europeans from Americans on the question of Israel and the Palestinians is one of the biggest impediments to transatlantic understanding today.
This gulf is well illustrated in a recent essay by Omer Bartov, a distinguished professor of European history at Brown University. In a lengthy discussion of contemporary anti-Semitism published last February in The New Republic, Bartov argued that just as the world failed to take Hitler at his word in the 1930s, so we are underestimating or even ignoring the revival, today, of similarly virulent anti-Semitism, whose consequences might prove comparably devastating. The message of the essay was that if anti-Zionism is a camouflage for anti-Semitism (and Bartov thinks it often is), then we should call it by its real name and combat it as such. In Europe especially it has become politically correct, Bartov suggests, to ignore – or play down – expressions of anti-Semitic opinion, particularly in the academic community. The time has come, he concludes, to call a spade a spade.
Bartov himself does not make the mistake of tarring any and all criticism of Israel with the brush of anti-Semitism. But by relentlessly drawing comparisons and analogies between contemporary anti-Zionism and the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the 1930s, he ends up conflating past and present. If we were wrong 70 years ago not to take Hitler's exterminationist intentions seriously, he suggests, we are just as wrong to make any allowance for Hamas, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (who said at a 2003 conference that "Jews rule this world by proxy"), renegade German politicians and novelists, misguided American academics, the former French ambassador to Britain (who several years ago referred to Israel as "that shitty little country") and no doubt countless others.
In Bartov's account, people might well have good reasons to criticize the policies of the Israeli government (Bartov himself is no admirer of Ariel Sharon). But those are not the reasons many of them express such criticisms. It is the hatred of Jews – Jews in Israel, Jews in Europe, Jews everywhere and always – that accounts for the virulence of the critique. The trouble with this account of the matter is, as I suggested above, that it does indeed make the relevant link between the Middle East and modern anti-Semitism, but inverts the causality.
It is the policies of Israeli governments, especially in the past two decades, that have provoked widespread anti-Jewish feelings in Europe and elsewhere. This may seem absurd, but there is a certain tragic logic to it. Zionists have always insisted that there is no distinction between the Jewish people and the Jewish state. The latter offers a right of citizenship to Jews anywhere in the world. Israel is not the state of all its citizens, much less all its residents; it is the state of (all) Jews. Its leaders purport to speak for Jews everywhere. They can hardly be surprised when their own behavior provokes a backlash against ... Jews.
Thus Israel itself has made a significant contribution to the resurgence of the anti-Semitism Bartov and others describe. This is an outcome with which many Israeli politicians are far from unhappy: It retroactively justifies their own bad behavior and contributes, as they proudly assert, to a rise in the number of European Jews leaving for Israel. At a time when many Israelis are obsessed with the prospect of becoming a minority in their own enlarged territory, the inflow of Jews fleeing real or imagined persecution is an occasion for self-congratulation.
Bartov concedes a distinction between "soft-core" and "hard-core" anti-Semitism. However, he still insists that there is a single slippery slope leading from misguided academics and intellectuals to pathological murderers. Historically this may be true. But today the implications of such a conflation of different levels of criticism and prejudice are dangerously censorious. No doubt some of Israel's strongest critics do display anti-Semitic propensities. But that doesn't disqualify anti-Zionism as ipso facto anti-Semitic: As Arthur Koestler observed back in 1948, you can't help people being right for the wrong reasons. If those of us who think Israel is behaving shamefully follow Bartov's reasoning, we'll be constrained to silence for fear of being accused of complicity in anti-Semitism ourselves.
What, then, is to be done? Those of us who take seriously the problem of anti-Semitism – but who utterly reject the suggestion that we ourselves are in danger of sympathizing with anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Zionism – must begin by constructing and defending a firewall between the two. Israel does not speak for Jews; but Israel's claim to speak for Jews everywhere is the chief reason that anti-Israel sentiments are transposed into Judeophobia. Jews and others must learn to shed inhibitions and criticize Israel's policies and actions just as they would those of any other established state.
It may be easier for Jews to take their distance from Israel's illegal acts and misguided calculations than it is for non-Jews – the latter are always vulnerable to moral blackmail by Zionists, especially in countries with anti-Semitic pasts. But we shall never be able to think straight about anti-Semitism until this firewall is in place. Once Germans, French and others can comfortably condemn Israel without an uneasy conscience, and can look their Muslim fellow citizens in the face, it will be possible to deal with the real problem. For indeed there is a problem. This is an arena in which legitimate responses shade all too readily into familiar prejudices.
Thus, to take one notorious example: Critics of the foreign policy of the Bush administration who claim that it is directed in many cases by men with close ties to Israel are not mistaken. Contemporary U.S. foreign policy is in certain respects mortgaged to Israel. Several very senior Bush appointees spent the 1990s advising politicians of the Israeli far right. But that does not mean that "Jewish interests" run the American government, as some European and many Arab commentators have inferred and suggested. To say that Israel and its lobbyists have an excessive and disastrous influence on the policies of the world's superpower is a statement of fact. But to say that "the Jews" control America for their own ends is to espouse anti-Semitism.
Moreover, the slippage between criticism of America and dislike for Jews long antedates the founding of the state of Israel. "Anti-Americanism" and anti-Semitism have been closely interwoven at least since the 1920s, when European intellectuals looked with nervous distaste across the Atlantic and saw a rootless, predatory, commercial society, the incarnation of cosmopolitan modernity, threatening the continuity and distinctiveness of their own national cultures. Many critics of America, in Germany or France or Russia, were all too quick to identify the shifting, unfamiliar contours of an Americanizing world with the essential traits of a homeless Jewry. The link with Israel is new, but the image of "Jewish" America is an old story and a troubling one.
Or, to take an even more sensitive instance: The Shoah is frequently exploited in America and Israel to deflect and forbid any criticism of Israel. Indeed, the Holocaust of Europe's Jews is nowadays exploited thrice over: It gives American Jews in particular a unique, retrospective "victim identity"; it allows Israel to trump any other nation's sufferings (and justify its own excesses) with the claim that the Jewish catastrophe was unique and incomparable; and (in contradiction to the first two) it is adduced as an all-purpose metaphor for evil – anywhere, everywhere and always – and taught to schoolchildren all over America and Europe without any reference to context or cause.
This modern instrumentalization of the Holocaust for political advantage is ethically disreputable and politically imprudent. To deplore this abuse of other people's sufferings seems to me an important civic duty. But to conclude that "the Jews" have made too much of what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945, or that it is now time to move on – that edges us much closer to anti-Semitism.
This brings us to a related and equally sensitive issue. Among European intellectuals and artists – in Germany, for example – anti-Semitism occasionally surfaces in discussions of how to speak openly about the unmanaged past. Why, people ask, after all these years should we not speak of the burning of Germany's cities, or the sinking of refugee boats, or even the uncomfortable fact that life in Hitler's Germany – for Germans – was far from unpleasant, at least until the last years of World War II? Because of what Germany did to the Jews? But we've spoken of this for decades – the Federal Republic is one of the most philo-Semitic nations in the world; for how much longer must we (Germans) look over our shoulder? Will the Jews never just forgive us and let everyone move on? As this last question suggests, what begins as the search for historical honesty risks ending perilously close to resentment at "the Jews."
In formerly communist countries one frequently encounters resentment and perplexity, among well-informed and educated people, at the West's failure to understand the enormity of the crimes of communism. "Why won't you compare Nazism to communism?" they ask. There are a number of answers that one might offer, but the question is not unreasonable, especially when posed by communism's victims. And it must be addressed openly, lest the citizens of eastern Europe tell themselves what a number of intellectuals in Romania, Hungary and elsewhere have already openly suggested: that the reason we in the West reject the comparison is that Nazism persecuted Jews above all, and it is Jews who set the international agenda for remorse, retribution and reparation. Once again, anti-Semitism emerges as the bastard child of otherwise reasonable political preoccupations.
There is no simple answer to the dilemmas raised by such issues. Somehow we need to juggle the need to speak honestly and openly about present politics and past sufferings without either imposing silences or legitimizing the resurrection of prejudices. In my view it is incumbent upon Jews in particular – Jewish writers, Jewish intellectuals, Jewish scholars – to address these contested and disconcerting problems. Because Jewish critics of Israel are less vulnerable to moral blackmail from Israel's defenders, they should be in the forefront of public discussion of the Middle East, in America and Europe alike.
Similarly, Jewish commentators need to take the lead in opening up difficult and uncomfortable conversations about the past – and the present – in Europe. Public discussion in Germany especially, but elsewhere too, is often trapped between politically correct evasions and resentful "taboo-breaking." The majority's fear of offending Jewish sensibilities arouses a growing minority's desire to do just that. We can never "normalize" the European history of anti-Semitism, nor should we. But if the charge of "anti-Semitism" remains suspended like Damocles' sword across the European public space – as it is today across much of America – we shall all fall silent. And between controversial debate and fearful silence we would be well advised to choose the former. Silence is always a mistake.
It's back to the problems.
Recent events have once again proved the truism that it's easy to run for office, it's hard to govern – especially when you're an arrogant fellow pursuing bad policies. For George W. Bush, knocking off John Kerry was a swagger on the beach compared to dealing with the real stuff. All Bush had to do was lie about Kerry, deride him, make promises he can't keep, talk tough, and mount an under-the-radar effort to motivate millions of fundamentalist Christian voters who (for some reason) obsess over gay marriage. That's nada compared to, say, winning the war in Iraq.
Once the election dust settled, the Bush gang looked like country-bumpkin first-termers. It botched the appointment of one of the most important Cabinet members: secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. The Bush White House did this by racing ahead with Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner and a Rudy Giuliani crony. It's not only that Bush's vetters missed Kerik's nanny problem. They apparently did not even do a Nexis search on the guy. Had they done so, they would have learned he was a nomination disaster waiting to happen. As New York City prisoner commissioner, he had diverted rebates from cigarette sales in prisons to an obscure foundation he ran. He had been entangled with a New Jersey construction firm with alleged mob ties. His leadership of the NYPD after 9/11 was dubbed "scandalous" by John Lehman, a Republican member of the independent 9/11 commission. He had been in charge of police training in Iraq – hardly a triumph. He had an arrest warrant issued against him in conjunction with a civil legal dispute. He was sued, in separate cases, for retaliating against a corrections official who backed a Democrat and against others who were in disputes with a corrections official with whom he was allegedly having an extramarital affair. He had parlayed his political connections and received millions of dollars from a company that did business with the Department of Homeland Security. And there was more. He was lucky he had a nanny he could hide behind.
The Kerik blunder was not the White House's only Cabinet-level screwup. Bush officials sent clear signals they wanted Treasury Secretary John Snow to hit the road. Then Bush announced Snow was staying put. This was no way for a president to treat the head of his economic team. After all, this is the guy who has to come out before the press and the business community and perform an all-important task: fudge the numbers. Can he do so effectively if he's peeved?
Then Bush got caught tapping the phones of Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Come on. If you're going to play this game, do it well and don't be found out. Worse (for Bush), the taps produced nothing the White House could use to force ElBaradei out of his post. The Bushies consider him too soft on Iran, and some Bush aides have been angling for his ouster. But they are probably also mad at him because ElBaradei showed them up. Before the invasion of Iraq, ElBaradei and his weapons inspectors declared there were no indications that Saddam Hussein had been reviving his nuclear weapons program. Yet Bush, Dick Cheney and their posse had claimed Hussein had been "reconstituting" his nuclear program. Now it's clear the International Atomic Energy Agency was right and Bush was wrong. So the obvious response from Bush is, off with his head!
Bush is facing trouble in Iran. Military experts tell me there are few effective military options for the Bush hawks. The Iranian nuclear weapons program – to the extent it exists – is probably dispersed, based in civilian areas and located deep underground. It is no easy target. And Iran – bigger and stronger than Iraq – is not invasion material, especially when U.S. forces are stretched thin next door. So what's a saber-rattling pre-emptionist to do? Ditto for North Korea.
Meanwhile, Iraq is not getting any easier. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld became the administration's Bonehead Number One when he dismissed a soldier's question about the lack of armor for the troops. Throughout the election, the Bush campaign denied Kerry's charge that Bush had not provided enough armor for the troops. It's not too tough to spin reporters; it's more difficult to spin unprotected soldiers. And on the first anniversary of Saddam Hussein's capture – remember when war backers hailed that development as the beginning of the end of the insurrection? – eight U.S. Marines were killed in different battles in Iraq. In one piece of good news for Bush, this bad news was chronicled by the Washington Post in a brief story on Page A17. (Scott Peterson still rates more media attention than dead American GIs.) As the January elections approach, the security situation in Iraq appears to be worsening. And the six-mile stretch of highway from the Green Zone in Baghdad to the international airport remains too dangerous for U.S. officials to travel. Doom-and-gloom is the official position of the CIA. The agency's station chief in Baghdad sent a cable in late November – which was leaked within two weeks – that offered a bleak view, noting security in Iraq is likely to deteriorate further. Just in time for the elections. The intelligence reform bill passed by Congress will not be of much help.
Then there's Social Security. For some odd reason, Bush seems to be serious about his promise to partially privatize Social Security. That is, he's still talking about it after the election. There appears to be no way for Bush to enact such a scheme without racking up $2 trillion in transition costs. Bush's tax cuts for the rich are projected to yield trillions of dollars in national debt, yet this explosion of red ink never became a hot topic during the presidential campaign. Will another $2 trillion in Bush-created debt finally pose him political trouble? Perhaps. At the same time, the folks around him have started to hint that retirement benefits may have to drop by 6 percent, even after supposed gains from private accounts are added to the picture. So let's see: more debt, lower benefits. Sounds like a winner. No wonder several Senate Republicans have said they won't support any Social Security legislation unless it is also endorsed by Democrats. They want political cover. Yet the conservative House Republicans have expressed no interest in negotiating with their Democratic colleagues. Can Bush navigate the political land mines? I'd rather choke on a pretzel.
During the campaign, I happened to share a long airplane ride with one of Kerry's top advisers. Several hours into our conversation, he told me that every once in a while Kerry would ask him, "What the fuck are we going to do?" Kerry had in mind Iraq and a Kerry victory. Thanks to Ohio, he does not have the burden of devising an answer to his own query. But Bush does – and not merely on Iraq. He's facing a boatload of ugly challenges and dilemmas. Democrats ought not to be too giddy about this, for Bush has demonstrated that when the going gets tough he is perfectly able to commit gigantic blunders with bad consequences for all and no punishment for him. But he is not going to be able to escape his problems by hitting the campaign trail. As an in-over-his-head president once said, "It's hard work."
It's that gift-giving time of year, and once again I'm delivering the goods to people I think are in need of something special as they head into 2005.
Let's start at the top. For George W, I've bottled up something small, but potent. It's an ounce of humility – not enough to make him truly humble, but just enough to wipe that Viagra-size smirk off his face. Even a little touch of the stuff would make him that much better of a president.
For Tom DeLay, the loopy former pest-exterminator who's become a giant-sized pest himself, I sent a big can of Raid. If he'll spritz a bit of it under each arm in the mornings, it'll hold down his offensive arrogance enough to make him almost human.
But, what to get Wal-Mart? You'd think it has everything. Ah, of course, I'll give it the one thing it does not have: A union! This will enable its employees to get a fair wage, decent health care, and maybe even a pension, thus improving the public image and community reputation of the biggest and Scroogiest corporation in the world.
The Democratic party. Now there's a hard-hit outfit in need of lots of help. But I can think of the perfect gift to let it help itself, build its strength, and even flourish again. I'm sending the national party leaders some gumption – specifically, the gumption to be Democrats. Period. That's what people want the the party of Jefferson, FDR, HST, JFK, and LBJ to be. Not the corporate-hugging, mealy-mouthed party its been the last few years, but the unabashed, uncompromised party of working folks, willing to return to its populist roots and go right at the Bushites and their corporate sponsors.
Then there's Donnie Rumsfeld, who's so puffed up on himself that he can't see the mess he's made with his neo-con warmongering. So, I'm sending him a six-month stint as a grunt in Iraq, assigned to drive one of those vehicles that he still hasn't outfitted with life-protecting armor.
Happy holidays to all!
Right now, somewhere in the White House, administration strategists are hatching plans to go to war. Battle plans are being drawn. Timing and tactics are being finalized. A nuclear option is even being openly discussed.
The designated target? Iran? Syria? North Korea?
No, much closer to home: the United States Senate.
Salivating at the chance to radically remake the Supreme Court, the president and his loyal lapdogs in the World's Most Exclusive Club are plotting to obliterate over 200 years of Senate tradition by eliminating the use of filibusters against judicial nominees. The Robert's Rules of Disorder scheme would involve – who else? – Vice President Dick Cheney, in his role as presiding Senate officer, ruling that judicial filibusters are unconstitutional and Majority Leader Bill Frist squashing the Democrats' inevitable objection to such an edict by tabling the motion. As long as we're "spreading democracy" abroad, no reason to leave out the home front, right?
This is the so-called "nuclear option," embraced with a wink and a nudge by Frist in November when he told the conservative Federalist Society: "One way or another, the filibuster of judicial nominees must end."
Invoking this parliamentary dirty trick would eliminate unlimited debate on judicial nominations and lower the number of votes needed before a nominee can be confirmed from the 60 necessary to break a filibuster to a simple majority of 51, and would drive a stake through the heart of the Senate's longstanding commitment – indeed one of its founding purposes – to defending the rights of the minority.
This scorched-earth approach is entirely in keeping with what Time magazine lauds this week as President Bush's "ten-gallon-hat leadership" style – a my-way-or-the-highway approach rooted in arrogance and laced with an intolerance of dissent that has already delivered him a rubber stamp Cabinet. Now he wants a rubber stamp Senate. Over the course of his first term, 204 of Bush's judicial nominees received Senate approval; just 10 were blocked. This is the highest number of lower-court confirmations any president has had in his first term since 1980 – including President Reagan. But, apparently, the highest is not enough. This president wants total approval of his every wish.
One small problem: That's not the way the Founding Fathers designed things. They had these funny notions about three separate but equal branches of government, free and open debate, and the value of checks and balances to ward off the overreaching for power by those in the majority. They built an entire system of government to counteract the abuse that inevitably goes with overreaching.
Yet that is precisely what the plan to do away with judicial filibusters is: an out-and-out power grab by the president and his Congressional accomplices. An underhanded scheme to kneecap the Constitution and take away the only weapon vanquished Democrats are left with to defend against Bush's "ten-gallon-hat" juggernaut. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of this battle. It is nothing less than a fight for the soul of our democracy – for what kind of country we want to live in. "George W. Bush," Ralph Neas, President of People for the American Way, told me, "has made it clear, both through his public comments and through the judges he has nominated to appellate courts, that he is committed to advancing an ideological agenda that would roll back many of the social and legal gains of the last century."
According to Neas, who has been at the forefront of judicial battles since the fight against Robert Bork in 1987, this is not just about Roe vs. Wade – it's also about turning the clock back to a time when states' rights and property rights trumped the protection of individual liberties and the ability of Congress to act in the common good on issues as far-ranging as civil rights enforcement, environmental protection, and worker health and safety.
This is not overheated partisan rhetoric but a realistic appraisal of the rulings handed down by the federal judges Bush has already appointed – and of the written opinions of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court Justices the president has cited as his models for future nominees to the High Court. "Courting Disaster 2004," a study by People for the American Way Foundation, found that adding just one or two Scalia/Thomas clones to the Supreme Court would put at risk more than 100 precedents and the legal protections they safeguard.
We're talking about the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, worker protections, access to contraceptives and legal abortions, laws protecting our clean air and drinking water, and on and on.
Senate rules regarding filibusters are not something most Americans will find themselves discussing over a glass of eggnog during the holidays. But the impact these rules can have on our lives is staggering. And it must be made clear right now – not when Chief Justice Rehnquist resigns and Cheney and Frist team up to push the nuclear button. By then it will be much too late, and all Harry Reid will be able to do is duck and cover. True leadership is being able to see not just the crisis staring you in the face – but the one lurking just around the corner.
President Bush is pulling on his oversized Stetson and gearing up for battle. And here, unlike Iraq, he's making sure his political troops have all the armor they need. The Democrats need to pre-emptively launch an all-out campaign to educate the American people about what will be at stake during the coming assault on our democratic values. If they succeed, they will have the public with them, even if it becomes necessary to resort to threats of Mutually Assured Legislative Destruction. Let's hope that's not what it will take to protect the Senate, the Constitution, and over 65 years of hard-won social victories from the GOP's looming nuclear winter.
This wintry season, as the faithful continue to receive alarming reports from the news that Republicans are all that stand between them and the outlawing of Christmas itself by hordes of secular humanists, the two presidents Bush have endorsed a powerful conservative interest group specializing in removing the cross – not from schools or courthouses, but from churches.
Rather than the traditional egg hunt, this group, calling itself the American Clergy Leadership Conference, sponsored a nationwide "Tear Down The Cross" day for Easter, 2003. Last week, leaders in this radical cause presided over a Washington prayer breakfast featuring messages of thanks from the presidents. Former Sen. Bob Dole came in person.
Mostly African American, pastors who joined in 2003's ACLC-sponsored "Tear Down The Cross" won gold watches from the wealthy group, which unabashedly claims in its publications to have stripped churches of over a hundred crosses over the Easter holiday alone. This, movement leaders said, cleared the way for a new age and second messiah.
Speaking of messiahs, make a quick stop at the Web site of the ACLC, and it's clear there's more to it than the "rapidly growing movement of clergy committed to the endeavor of making this nation the best that it can be," as the ACLC described itself in a Dec. 8 Washington Times op-ed. It's actually a vehicle for Sun Myung Moon, the billionaire conservative donor who calls himself the True Father.
Though the breakfast boasted two other "co-sponsors," both are easily identifiable as projects of the self-declared Messiah: the International and Interreligious Federation of World Peace and the American Family Coalition, which Moon founded in 1984. How much more eminent these names sound than "the Moonies"! In the 1970s, that was the shorthand on the evening news for Moon's followers, whose frank call for crushing Western democracy, combined with success in recruiting teenagers, made them a popular nightmare on the evening news.
On Wednesday, a video file containing the elder President Bush's message to the ACLC disappeared from the movement's web site, though both Bush endorsements were reported in the Washington Times. Neither the White House nor the ACLC returned requests for comment on the breakfast and President Bush's participation.
Taking out the Trash
One series of photos found on Moon's Web site, but purged after receiving unfavorable attention earlier this year from evangelicals, shows Massachusetts preacher John Kingara taking down the cross from his church, hauling it behind the old brick building and hoisting it into a dumpster. Another shows a ritual in Israel disposing of the cross in the earth.
Kingara, embracing the ACLC's new gospel, declared in remarks found in the Unification News, "The fact that the cross is a symbol of division, shame, suffering and bloodshed prove that it is not of God but Satan." He continued, "On this 18th day of April 2003, we are beginning a new history. Pastors, please, help me to bring the cross down, because it is not of God but the devil."
Cheerfully pitched to pastors as "trade your cross for a crown," Moon's rebate plan takes its name from a 1913 hymn with a somewhat different slant. Whereas "The Old Rugged Cross" pines for salvation in heaven, Moon offered the pastors the possibility to cash in here on earth, at a taxpayer-funded Senate building. At a secret March 23, 2004 ceremony, he declared he was erecting heaven on earth. That evening, the elderly Korean eminence behind the ACLC was brought the twinkling crown by bowing Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.).
Moon was no accidental VIP that night. Far from being on the fringes of Washington, he's the supermogul behind a political and media empire that includes the Washington Times and United Press International, as well as being a longtime friend of the Bush family.
In Moon's teachings, God himself is shedding tears over mankind's obsession with the cross, which prevents us from recognizing the real "returning lord": Moon himself. It's no secret. This is something he's patiently explained to many audiences of congressmen and former Republican presidents over the years, in Washington pageants that hardly ever make the news.
Moon was keynote speaker last week, declaring in remarks reprinted by the Times that "God's heart is under confinement." In some ways it was a repeat performance of the Senate coronation ceremony, which The New York Times editorial page compared to an act of the mad emperor Caligula.
You may remember that Sen. John Warner and other congressmen unloaded on Moon's entourage for "deceiving" them into sponsoring a ceremony where America "surrendered to [Moon] in the king's role," according to an internal church memo. "America is saying to Father, 'please become my king,'" claimed Moon minister Chung Kwak. The versatile Kwak is currently wearing a second hat as head of the UPI news agency, added to Moon's collection of media properties in 2000.
Strangely enough, last week the hosts of the "surrender" ceremony weren't blasted but blessed by two presidents of the United States. The same faces were there: George Stallings, Jr., the flamboyant ex-archbishop who bellowed at the March dinner for America to open up its heart to Moon; Michael Jenkins and Chang Shik Yang, hosts of past "Tear Down The Cross" rituals; and former Democratic D.C. representative Walter Fauntroy, who shares the Moonies' opposition to gay civil unions (Moon calls gays "dung-eating dogs"; Fauntroy calls same-sex marriage "an abomination"). Congressman Davis did not attend.
Like the Senate party, this conference climaxed with a new Crown of Peace awarded to Moon by his own organization, though in this case they held off on the royal treatment until the following evening. The award was reported by UPI.
According to a report in the Washington Times as well as video found on the Moon-affiliated Web site FamilyFed.org, the elder Bush made a taped appearance before the ACLC's 3,000-strong crowd, which he thanked for their work. "I thought about parachuting into the building," he joked about wishing he could make it. And he paid lip service to Moon's unwieldy religious jargon, using phrases like "peace centered on God," a goal that he called "right on target."
His son, George W. Bush, wrote a warm letter of support presented at the event by a state senator, in which the president and his wife Laura sent his best wishes to the sponsors – and thanked them for rallying his "armies of compassion." It is unclear what the ACLC has done for society's problems, though its Web site is selling a video called "Beyond The Cross," and an affiliated Moon front group, Free Teens USA, has received almost half a million dollars under Bush's abstinence-only program.
Last year, as word seeped out of a movement with billions in the bank, exchanging gifts and promises of financial security for the rejection of Protestant beliefs, more mainstream, born-again Christians, like radio host Vic Eliason, were horrified. He warned on his nationally-syndicated program CrossTalk that the ACLC was ushering a false teacher into the houses of belief. Others speculated Moon was the Antichrist. But how many listeners knew that the false teacher's phone number might as well be programmed into George H.W. Bush's mobile phone?
Wouldn't Be Prudent
The elder Bush once explained his cooperation with Moon's Unification Church to the Washington Post, through a spokesman, as follows: "this group is about strengthening the family and that's what President and Mrs. Bush are deeply focused on." Well, after a fashion. Moon preaches that Jesus failed to start a family, which is why God is "confined," as he said Tuesday – grieved by his son's having blown it for mankind, with the Nazi Holocaust a punishment for the Jews' failure to unite behind the King of the Jews.
And so Moon says he's building a new kingdom centered on "absolute family-ism," referring to his True Family of sworn followers. In the past, his new sons and daughters have rejected their own families to join Moon, who handpicks mates for them to marry at his mass weddings. One ex-member is Cathryn Mazer, whose grieving family was filmed in 1993 by the "Today Show" as they tried without success to enter a Moon dormitory where Cathryn was staying. She says photos of Moon with Bush played a major role in the seminar that indoctrinated her into the cult – used to sell potential converts on the legitimacy of Moon.
"If someone told you about it, it would seem too far-fetched to be plausible," she says.
Yet the friendship is well-documented. Reuters reported in the mid-'90s that the elder Bush trekked to Argentina as a paid spokesman for Moon, whom he introduced as "the man with the vision." During the Clinton years, Bush also tagged along with Moon's speaking tour in Japan, where the former president had kind words for his strange bedfellow, an ex-convict. Bush is estimated to have received upwards of $1 million for these appearances. Moon also gave $1 million to Bush's presidential library. And when Bush was vice president, it was a generous check from Moon that opened Oliver North's Contra Freedom Fund.
But Washington conservatives are most thankful to Moon for lavishing more than $2 billion on the money-losing Washington Times. The paper was an important building block in the construction of the alternative, Republican media machine as we know it today. But many conservatives were quietly uneasy – fretting that a pact was being made with the devil. At a 1997 Washington Times anniversary dinner, the elder Bush made a video appearance similar to Monday's, crediting the paper with winning the Cold War, and similarly sharing a stage with Moon, who claimed then that he had founded the Times to save the world.
In Monday's video, Bush declared: "I want to salute a man I respect: Wes Pruden," referring to the Times editor, whose paper frequently publicizes Moon projects that most newspapers would ignore. On December 7 he ran a piece by ACLC Rev. Donnie McLeod, who has argued for the removal of the cross in sermons covered by Unification Church publications.
The cross-disposal theologian wrote: "as the president is now free from the election concerns and can never be reelected, he can now build a legacy for America and the world." ACLC leaders, he said, "are ready to see the president as I see him, a man to God who is truly ready to make the sacrifices and commitments to create a legacy of faith and family that will guide our nation for the next 200 years."
The Washington Times Foundation is slippery to define, an organization with multiple public faces that morphs when convenient into the ACLC and other religious organizations. The Senate coronation, for example, was booked under the name of the foundation, though it was treated as a photo opportunity for the South Korean religious arm of the church, which trumpeted it as the U.S. government's official stamp of approval on plans for the future of Christianity.
A former Times editor, James Whalen, told me that the protean nature of the group makes it easy to involve national-level figures in "showcasing" Moon – yet conveniently allows politicians to claim, for example, that they only dropped by to lift a glass to the awesome investigative reporting of Times reporter Bill Gertz.
And meanwhile, at the other end of the invisible line between mainstream and eldrich, there is the ACLC and its persistence in seeing the Christian cross disposed of like nuclear waste. A month after Easter last year, the group flew holy men from all over the world to a graveside in Israel, where undertakers had draped a cross beneath the blue and yellow flag of Reverend Moon, and buried the cross forever – another casualty at the hands of the armies of compassion.
Spurred on by the likes of Bill O'Reilly, conservatives are outraged at the war against Christianity supposedly declared in department stores' "Happy Holidays" signs. But secularism is one thing, and sacrilege is something else, especially coming from Sun Myung Moon's cult, which indulges dreams of becoming the state religion. The president has built his reputation on being a good Methodist, but he rarely attends church, come to think of it. And he has cozied up to a desecration spree that Tim LaHaye couldn't make up in his "Left Behind" books. Is he what he pretends to be?
Just my luck: I finally get to be a senior citizen only to discover that the president considers my longevity a grave threat to the nation. Apparently, my collecting Social Security checks for as long as I have left on this Earth is going to help bankrupt the economy and/or be an unbearable burden on young Americans.
That's why, after seven decades of unmitigated success in protecting seniors from the vagaries of market forces, the White House now wants to turn Social Security itself over to the vagaries of market forces. The conservative mantra, whether it comes to energy policy, war in Iraq or education, is to siphon public money into the private sector whenever and wherever possible, through such gimmicks as agribusiness subsidies, school vouchers and the hiring of private mercenaries.
Greed perfectly meshes with ideology in the Republican Party, and the attempted sabotage of Social Security is just another example. While the followers of Milton Friedman talk about the free market in religious terms, Wall Street is slavering at the possibility of one of the biggest potential windfalls in human history if the Social Security spigot is turned its way. The attendant investment fees alone would be enormous – certainly higher than the minimal 1% overhead costs the current Social Security system consumes.
What's astonishing is that despite the recent spate of abrupt corporate bankruptcies and Wall Street corruption scandals, the president would have us believe only stockbrokers can save Social Security, and the stability of the entire fund would be tied to a stock market that has been known to tank now and again. Further, even the president's key advisors admit that the short-run cost of "privatizing" Social Security would add trillions of dollars to the Bush legacy of federal government red ink.
While I am all for expanding opportunities to invest in tax- deferred retirement accounts (like 401k's), it does not follow that Social Security should be exposed to the same risks. Social Security is the safety net for the elderly that has since its inception protected millions from facing abject poverty upon retirement – even if their pensions should evaporate, as they did for the employees of Enron.
Along with Medicare, Social Security is the key reason seniors are no longer the most impoverished class in our society or a crushing burden on their children. This last needs to be mentioned to counter the argument that ensuring the security of baby boom seniors would impose an intolerable burden on younger workers. For who is going to replace those Social Security checks, should they stop coming because Grandpa picked the wrong stock? The kids and grandkids, that's who, if they have any real family values.
I speak out of an experience I'm sure many of you share. My mother retired after 40 years as a garment worker, after which she lived with me until she died at the thankfully old age of 88. Her presence was of great emotional value to our family, but because of her two-decade bout with Parkinson's, it would have represented a serious financial burden on my wife and me had it not been for government support.
The president says the system that has served us well in the past is no longer sustainable. He, or rather those cooking the books for him, attempts to scare us with projections that the Social Security trust fund will begin to run deficits 38 years from now.
But those numbers assume no dramatic change in the increasing ability of seniors to retire later and otherwise continue to earn income that is taxable. The anti-Social Security crowd is trying to make this a young-versus-old generational fight, even though seniors still pay taxes like anybody else. We even pay taxes on most of our Social Security earnings, if our household income rises above a pittance.
If the president is truly worried about the federal coffers running dry he should stop cutting taxes for us better-off folk and stop spending so much money on boondoggles like the occupation of Iraq. However, if it turns out that we need additional taxes to cover the obligations of the Social Security trust fund four decades from now, so be it. After all, money distributed to the elderly through Social Security is poured right back into the economy.
For three-quarters of a century, Social Security has guaranteed us all a life of modest dignity as we live out the end of this mortal coil.
So – if you'll pardon this senior's use of a curmudgeonly truism – I say if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
The day following Election 2004, retiring NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw indicated the need for strong national standards in how we count the votes. In an unusually serious interview with David Letterman, Brokaw said point blank, "We've gotta fix the election system in this country."
In a message to supporters, former presidential candidate John Kerry echoed this sentiment, calling for new "national standards" for elections and saying "It's unacceptable that people still don't have full confidence in the integrity of the voting process." In Ohio, Reverend Jesse Jackson also called for reform, emphasizing the need for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote, a right guaranteed by most established democracies. Every returning member of the Congressional Black Caucus has signed onto Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr's HJR 28 to provide a constitutional right to vote.
The 2004 elections underscore the urgent demand to modernize our elections and bring them in line with international norms. Without such modernization, we will fail to establish a vital democracy and remain vulnerable to electoral breakdowns.
Consider these reforms:
1) Non-partisan election officials. At the top of the list must be nonpartisan election officials. It hardly matters whether the method of voting is with paper and pen or open-source computerized equipment if election administrators are not trustworthy. The secretaries of state overseeing elections in three battleground states – Ohio, Missouri, and Michigan – were co-chairs of their state's George Bush reelection campaigns. In Missouri, that Secretary of State was running for governor – he oversaw elections for his own race! A highly partisan Republican Secretary of State ran elections in Florida, as did a partisan Democrat in New Mexico. A Mexican observer of the 2004 election commented, "That looks an awful lot like the old Mexican PRI to me." Election administrators should be civil servants who have a demonstrated proficiency with technology, running elections, and making the electoral process transparent and secure.
2) National elections commission. The U.S. leaves election administration to administrators in over 3000 counties scattered across the nation with too few standards or uniformity. This is a formula for unfair elections. Most established democracies use national elections commissions to establish minimum national standards and uniformity, and to partner with state and local election officials to ensure pre-election and post-election accountability for their election plans. The Elections Assistance Commission established recently by the Help America Vote Act is a pale version of this and should be strengthened greatly.
3) Universal voter registration. We lack a system of universal voter registration in which citizens who turn 18 years of age automatically are registered to vote by election authorities. This is the practice used by most established democracies, giving them voter rolls far more complete and clean than ours – in fact, a higher percentage of Iraqi adults are registered to vote than American adults. Universal voter registration in the U.S. is now possible as result of the Help America Vote Act which mandated that all states must establish statewide voter databases by 2006. It would add 50 million voters to the rolls, a disproportionate share being young people and people of color.
4) "Public Interest" voting equipment. Currently voting equipment is suspect, undermining confidence in our elections. The proprietary software and hardware are created by shadowy companies with partisan ties who sell equipment by wining and dining election administrators with little knowledge of voting technology. The government should oversee the development of publicly-owned software and hardware, contracting with the sharpest minds in the private sector. And then that open-source voting equipment should be deployed throughout the nation to ensure that every county – and every voter – is using the best equipment. Other nations already do this with positive results.
5) Holiday/weekend elections. We vote on a busy workday instead of on a national holiday or weekend (like most other nations do), creating a barrier for 9 to 5 workers and also leading to a shortage of poll workers and polling places. Puerto Rico typically has the highest voter turnout in the United States, and makes Election Day a holiday.
6) Ending redistricting shenanigans by adopting full representation. Most legislators choose their voters during the redistricting process, long before those voters get to choose them. 98% of U.S. House incumbents again won re-election, and 95% of all races were won by noncompetitive margins. The driving factor is not campaign finance inequities but winner-take-all elections compounded by rigged legislative district lines. As a start, redistricting must be non-partisan, driven by nonpolitical criteria. But by far the best solution is full representation electoral systems which make voters far more important than district lines.
7) Abolish the Electoral College. The Electoral College enables presidential campaigns to almost completely ignore most states. It allows a shift of a handful of votes in one or two states to decide the presidency, inviting corruption and partisan election administration. It can deny the presidency to the candidate with the most votes. We need to support Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr's HR 109, to institute direct election of the president with a majority victory threshold.
8) Pry open our democracy. Our "highest vote-getter wins" method of electing executive offices creates incentives to keep third-party candidates off the ballot as potential spoilers. Battles over Ralph Nader's ballot access demonstrated that our system is not designed to accommodate three or more choices, yet important policy areas can be completely ignored by major party candidates. Most modern democracies accommodate voter choice through two-round runoff or instant runoff elections for executive offices, and full representation electoral systems for legislatures. Instant runoff voting had a great first election in San Francisco this November and passed in other places like Burlington, Vermont and Ferndale, Michigan.
A number of organizations are highlighting reform packages, among them Progressive Democrats of America and Common Cause. We can't win all these reforms at once, but we can make advances if we keep our eye on the prize and pursue opportunities that emerge. We urge people to visit FairVote's website at fairvote.org to find out how to get involved. Whether you're a Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian or independent, you can be part of one big party: the "Better Democracy" party.
The recent election spawned a thousand postmortems. Most attributed the Democratic loss to an incoherent message and a refusal to relate to America's deeply felt religious longings. The Democratic Party is probably guilty on both counts. But that is not why liberals – in the traditional sense of the term – lose elections. They lose because they approach politics differently from conservatives, at least conservatives circa 2004.
Conservatives view politics as war. In war, one tries to demoralize and destroy the enemy, seize his territory and gain unconditional surrender. And as Alberto Gonzales, our next Attorney General, has argued in an international context, in war there are no rules.
Liberals engage in politics as a contact sport. In politics, like football, people get injured. But even violent sports have rules. Rule-breakers receive penalties, including being thrown out of the game. And in sports, when the game ends, people shake hands, and differences are set aside.
This difference in approach results in a telling and visible difference in tactics and strategy. At the Democratic convention, word went out that it was to be a positive affair, pro-Kerry, not anti-Bush. The Republican Convention, on the other hand, accentuated the negative. It was a savage affair. Contrast the content and style of the keynote address of Barack Obama at the Democratic convention with that of Zell Miller at the Republican convention. When Reverend Al Sharpton went off-script in a speech that energized everyone at the Convention, Democratic leaders and commentators quickly distanced themselves from his comments.
Kerry was extremely reluctant to focus on George W. Bush's absence in the National Guard. Republicans, on the other hand, gave tens of millions of dollars to fund a 7-month no-holds-barred vicious effort by Swift Boat veterans accusing Kerry of being a traitor who prolonged the war and shot himself to gain a Purple Heart. The Democratic Party's response? No fair.
In the days following the 2002 election, House Majority Leader Tom Delay and other Republican leaders sent thugs into Florida's election offices to physically stop the manual recount. The morning after the 2004 election, with clear evidence of thousands of instances of voter fraud and malfeasance coming in across the country and specifically, in closely contested Ohio, John Kerry conceded.
Conservatives understand the nature of power and they are willing, even eager, to exercise it. When Ronald Reagan assumed office, Republicans adopted a conservative litmus test for those coming into civil service. They reassigned or forced out civil servants who did not accept the party's new ideology. James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, put contractors on notice that they'd better be Republicans.
Before the 1984 election I asked several leading Democratic Party officials whether they would engage in the same tactics if they regained control of the Executive Branch. I argued that if they did not, they would be saddled with an obstructionist bureaucracy hostile to their objectives. They were horrified at my suggestion. "What they did was wrong," they insisted.
When Republicans gained control of the House in the mid-1990s they made it clear that any trade association with a lobbyist with Democratic credentials would have a difficult time gaining access. In this election, for the first time in U.S. history, the Republican Party declared that no one could see the president speak unless they supported his re-election. They spread the word that those who volunteered to work for his re-election would be given a priority.
In 1989, Newt Gingrich filed charges against Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright. Gingrich argued that Wright had used bulk purchases of a vanity book, "Reflections of a Public Man," to earn speaking fees in excess of the allowed maximum. At the time the Democratic Party held as large a majority in the House as the Republican Party does now. But Democrats did not defend Wright. After all, they sheepishly maintained, he did engage in unethical conduct. In May, Wright resigned as Speaker. In June he resigned his office.
Fast forward to 2004. Republican Speaker of the House Tom Delay has been censured twice for unethical conduct. He may soon be indicted. The Republican response? They changed the rules to allow him to continue as speaker even if indicted!
When the Senate was deliberating about whether to support John Ashcroft's nomination as Attorney General, Democrat Russell Feingold insisted, "A Republican president ought to be able to appoint people of strong conservative ideology." Can you imagine a Republican senator uttering those words if a Democratic president were in power and he nominated someone with strong liberal credentials? Remember Lani Guinier?
Conservatives are driven by rage. Liberals are driven by guilt. Conservatives suffer no moral qualms when they engage in dirty tactics. The ends justify the means. Civilization is at stake. Liberals worry that if they do evil they will become evil.
Consider the very language that Republicans use. When conservative Republicans gained control of the House in 1994 Gingrich's political action committee, GOPAC, circulated to all Republican members a memo. Entitled, "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control," the memo declared, "Language matters." It contained a list of words that should be "Appl(ied) to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party. ...Memorize as many as possible," it urged. Among the words listed were, "decay, failure, sick, pathetic, liberal, traitors, threaten, devour, destructive, corrupt, steal, cheat, bizarre."
Ten years later such vocabulary has become standard fare in Republican campaigns.
In this campaign, Democrats were reluctant to attack George W. Bush for his violations of religious doctrine (e.g. supporting the death penalty, slashing help to the needy). Republicans focused on John Kerry's violation of a single Catholic tenet (abortion) and throughout the campaign accused him of blasphemy and worse. Here in Minnesota, conservatives carried signs branding John Kerry the anti-Christ.
Which leads to the key question: Can we fight fair and win? Can we talk about issues while refusing to engage in character assassination and gain a political victory at the national level? Or, on the flip side, if we adopt conservative tactics will we lose the very soul of liberalism? If we engage in politics as war, and win, will the same brutalizing values guide our exercise of power once in office?