In 1952, the first time I ever voted, I cast my ballot for Adlai Stevenson. Since then my presidential choice, always a Democrat, has lost more often than not. But no loss has been as dispiriting and bitter as this one. It is hard to take.
The Iraq adventure is a catastrophic failure, launched on arrogance and faith, managed with ham hands and closed minds. The cost has been awful. Yet the know-nothings who launched and managed it have received a resounding endorsement. Bush and his ideologues will face no accounting for failure and stupidity.
For a few days before the election, a fantasy danced in my head. It was like the climax of one of those historical novels that Howard Fast used to write in his communist days. I imagined hordes of the downtrodden and dispossessed, the black and the Hispanic, the poor and the immigrant marching to the polls, slapping down the slick Republican troublemakers in their way, and casting their ballots for Kerry and a better way of life. It would all be democracy on the rise — to resounding music. For a few hours, when rumors spread that the exit polls were predicting a Kerry landslide, I thought my vision might be true. But the results soon dashed that fancy.
The reality was disconcerting. A lot of poor people, good Christians all, voted for lower taxes for the rich and less help from government to themselves and more death and mayhem for their kids in Iraq just because they felt that issues like halting gay marriage were more important than their own well-being. Kerry, they felt, did not share their values. Some pundits say that the Democrats will never take power until their elite learns to fathom and even share the values of the common folk. Perhaps that is true. But the word “values” conjures up so many images of ignorance for me that I find it despicable. I do not want to share the values of the Evangelicals.
Many Americans voted for Bush, I suppose, because they did not want to change their commander in chief during the midst of a war. They especially did not want to change him for someone who had been portrayed as a namby-pamby, medal-cheating flip flopper in one of the lowest campaigns in our history. Bush had no defense of his misdeeds save the denigration of his opponent. The Kerry argument that the commander-in-chief had slowed down and diverted the war on terror with his pointless march into Iraq was too subtle for a good many voters.
The results, in fact, make me feel alienated. I do not mean that I feel alienated from all the Americans who voted for Bush. But I do feel alienated from a lot of them, and I certainly feel alienated from the president and the ideologues who surround him. There are two Americas, as John Edwards likes to say, but I don’t think they are divided between rich and poor. It’s more like a division between open hearts and shuttered minds.
Press coverage of the campaign troubled me. Reporters leaned over so far to be fair that they sometimes ended up like pretzels. A flaw found in one candidate had to be balanced by a flaw found in the other. A lie, no matter how momentous, had to be balanced with another lie, no matter how paltry. Bush lied about the situation in Iraq, but Kerry exaggerated the number of jobs lost. Bush lied about the ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda, but Kerry underestimated the cost of his health program. The Associated Press, when I worked for it many years ago, used to insist there were two sides to every story — even when there were three or only one. I had a feeling that many reporters were still caught in that old AP culture.
Reporters sometimes struck me as too measured. David Broder, for example, wrote a column in the Washington Post that laid down all the presidential qualities that each candidate might have or lack. It was the kind of column that he might have written about Bush and Al Gore four years ago. But there was one critical difference: Bush had already made the grievous error of invading Iraq — a catastrophe crying out for punishment. When the Watergate affair drove Richard Nixon from office, columnists did not fret over the qualifications of Gerald Ford, wondering if it was wise to have him replace Nixon. Nixon would have to go — no matter who was vice president.
But I am not blaming the press for Kerry’s defeat. Every news story about the mess in Iraq — and at least one came every day — served as a blow against Bush. The press did not hide the awful details, and every assurance by Bush and Cheney about success in Iraq was undercut by the news on television and in the newspapers. The Bush-Cheney chorus about good news in the face of all the bad news only made them look silly — at least to me.
The election returns have dealt Democrats a terrible blow. There was so much energy expended, money spent, enthusiasm generated, hatred felt and voters organized in vain this year that the work of mounting a similar campaign in another year must seem insuperable now. Moreover, Democrats must face an emboldened Republican president allied with an emboldened Republican Congress. The Democrats have only their threat of filibuster as a check and balance. Bush, Bill Frist and Tom DeLay can do most of what they want. Democrats may have to content themselves with little more than crying out in the wilderness.
There will be a lot of Bush talk about reaching out to his opponents. After all, he is continually expressing dismay about his failure so far to end divisiveness in Washington. There is no doubt Washington needs that. Bush likes to boast that he was a Texas governor supported by legislators of both parties. The extent of his seriousness will be measured soon enough by his probable nomination of a Chief Justice and his decision about a Secretary of State and an Attorney-General. On this depressing morning, I do not have much hope.