Wednesday, November 10, 2004

One Week After

George Bush's re-election was confirmed seven mornings ago by a modest but considerable margin of roughly three and a half million votes or three percentage points. Now there is a great deal of hand-wringing over the extent of Bush's mandate. Republicans and conservatives are gloating while Democrats and progressives are panicking. One almost gets the impression that neither side anticipated that there would be a winner and a loser. How else can one explain hysteria over a fairly narrow 51%-48% divide (both nationally and in Ohio) as if it were an unforseen landslide? Even the poetically populist Bill Moyers and his successor David Brancaccio reminded their TV audiences that each candidate won 43%-45% of the total votes in the combined states won by his opponent. Talk of mass emigration, partition, secession and civil war is more than a bit exaggerated.

I have already written that the noisy sexual moralism of this year's campaign was a powerful force, but also mostly a senior citizen voting trend. Institutional homophobia is the prevailing wisdom of the dying generation; the same elders, however, also have the highest voter turnout. Youth-oriented "Rock the Vote" campaigning, despite a lot of sentimental hopes, does not yield a high enough rate to overwhelm the senior citizen ballots. It never has, contrary to the myth that MTV helped Bill Clinton to unseat George H.W. Bush in 1992, and it probably never will. There are different predominant temperaments across age groups, and in the age of birth control the older ones outnumber the younger ones. Ultimately, banning gay marriage was not the chief means of Bush's re-election. It might be the case, on the other hand, that the push for gay marriage in the last year was the reason for the hastened victory of backlash votes against the same in eleven states.

Putting aside the demographics of anti-homosexuality, the Democrats under Senator Kerry were beaten somewhat badly. David Brooks argues that the myth of the deterministic "values" vote obscures a more startling development: namely, Bush won a higher share of votes in the bulk of the Democrat/Kerry majority states than he had in 2000. The President improved his performance in New York, in Connecticut and even in Kerry's home state of Massachusetts.

Bush's "minority presidency" is no more. Bill Clinton, remember, had two "minority administrations" and won the first because of Ross Perot's effect on the GOP vote in 1992. Despite Republican control of Congress, he barely eked out a plurality re-election in 1996. Perhaps the two wins obscured the Democrats' increasing vulnerability throughout the 1990s. By contrast, the 2004 incumbent who was ostensibly the "most polarizing national figure" in the history of everything has now won over a raw majority of the country. Many of Bush's newer supporters, like myself, preferred his Republican war strategy to the Democrats'. I cannot emphasize this issue enough, for it is the reason that I held my nose and forgave Bush's right-wing cultural politics.

The Democratic Party, by contrast, spent most of the last four years with a rudderless foreign policy. As the opposition party, it had no need for consensus. Perhaps the most polarized was the divide between an increasingly anti-war grassroots base and an initially pro-war leadership. The national Democrats gave near-unanimous support to operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. (The exception, Rep. Barbara Lee, won easy re-election last week.) The war in Iraq broke that consensus, and put hawkish party elites in conflict with an increasingly dovish rank-and-file.

The Democrats' dilemma, then and now, was whether or not to oppose the escalation of war against terrorists and rogue states. The Kerry/Edwards ticket was an attempt to bridge the gap: two nominees who once supported a wider war, then grew displeased with the administration conducting it. It was not enough to win the country, and not enough to win my vote.

The defeated party may now wish to pursue a more determined anti-war course, perhaps along the lines of Senator George McGovern's failed 1972 candidacy. Being out of power, the Democrats have little incentive to applaud the policies of those who have the responsibility of exercising it. Radicals to the Left of the Democrats may soon despair even further. I often worry that the stripe of campus/cosmopolitan Marxists may turn to violence like their Baby Boom predecessors. Let us sincerely hope they do not.

In any case, the Democrats are in a dire strait: during wartime, they are torn in two. It would take a great deal to overcome anti-war sentiment in the party. If the fight against Islamic fascism remains popular in general--as I suspect it will--then the Republicans will be the ones running the show. Moderates who might disagree on other issues will continue supporting the GOP for the sake of triumph in battle.

For the Democrats to win back the White House, they would have to do so with a more pro-war candidate. Indeed, a generation of geostrategic thinking tinged by the New Left would need to be discarded. The more progressive wing of the party would have to trade aspirations of restoring social democracy for Third Way centrism and a larger military budget.

If the residual strength of a dovish left-wing requires that the Democrats stand for twentieth century entitlement programs and the Vietnam Syndrome, then they will be the permanent minority. In that situation, the party would risk splitting between semi-Greens and centrists. A winner-take-all system makes this more unlikely, but one cannot rule it out. My guess is that the left-wing party would be the smaller one, while a larger centrist one might siphon-off considerable moderate Republican support and split the GOP. Unfortunately, the middle-of-the-road majority party is usually just a fantasy. During larger realignments, one might rule temporarily before the third party switches sides. For example, in 1968 Nixon won as a centrist against the Democrats and right-wing Southerner George Wallace; soon the splinter voters became Republicans.

Now, presuming that the Democrats are about to make a hard Left turn, and that the puritan Republicans are disproportionately elderly, I cautiously predict that GOP moderates will become more powerful over time. In the next few years, I suspect Bush will try to maximize the number and extent of conservative reforms. The four Republican U.S. Senate seats from Maine and Pennsylvania might prove susceptible to Democratic contenders, while a fifth held by Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island might go the way of Jim Jeffords' and leave the party. The Senate is the first place where the GOP could lose its current monopoly, and there the moderates would be the most vulnerable. The House of Representatives' districts are gerrymandered to the point of perversity, foretelling little change before the next national census. In presidential contests, however, I see an enduring Democratic weakness and a likely Republican strength.

A more rabid Democratic Party in 2008 and after will give the Republicans the opportunity to keep power with comparative centrism. McCain, Giuliani and Schwarzenegger have already bedazzled many swing voters and moderate Democrats, and they are the key to future victory. Bush has many fine qualities, but an inflexible social conservatism (aside from being objectionable in its own right) cannot have a great longevity in a cosmopolitan U.S. society. Wartime emergency and a weak challenger can give a culturally half-reactionary administration a very broad base of support. A more lasting strategy requires pragmatism, compromise and modernization. Considering the Republican moderates have greater popularity than Democrat counterparts like Joe Lieberman and the now-retiring Dick Gephardt, I think the former will ascend in coming years.