Thursday, November 4, 2004

  • Bush receives Kerry's concession call (Reuters photo)

    Bush receives Kerry's concession call (Reuters photo)

Written by Adrian Dix (CBC)

The 2004 presidential election will go down as one of the closest in U.S. history. A shift of one per cent of the vote in one state (Ohio) would have made John Kerry president of the United States.

It is only in comparison to the chaos of 2000 that this election seems like a decisive mandate for President Bush. Other than 2000, this was the closest election in the electoral college since 1916 and the closest election in the popular vote since 1968.

The 2004 results are virtually a mirror image of the 2000 election. Forty-seven of 50 states (plus the District of Columbia) voted for the same party in 2004 as in 2000. Only New Hampshire (which moved to the Democratic side), Iowa and New Mexico (which moved to the president) changed. The popular vote was also one of the closest in American history.

The divisions of the 2000 election were not resolved in 2004. In fact, the government that Americans woke up to is a dangerous cocktail. Republicans control the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, a majority of state houses and soon, President Bush will be able to stack the Supreme Court with conservative judges. America is a divided two-party democracy with an increasingly one-party state.

How did Bush win?

First things first: my prediction of the election result was wrong. George W. Bush won Ohio, Florida (all the other states went as predicted) and the White House. Where did I (and quite a few others) go wrong?

I believed that turnout would be a decisive factor – that young people, African-Americans and low-income voters would turn out to the polls like never before and offset the Bush campaign's efforts to mobilize the conservative base. The poor economic performance of the Bush administration and the deepening quagmire of Iraq would also tip the balance to Kerry. And the Democratic party and its allies, inspired by Howard Dean, used the internet to almost match the Republicans in fundraising, and therefore advertising, at the end of the campaign.

And in fact, there was record turnout among both African-American and Hispanic voters. Newly registered voters did give Kerry a significant majority, more than 60 per cent in most exit polls (a slightly contested source).

However, the Democrats had three advantages in 2000 they did not have in 2004. First, they had the White House, and Al Gore as vice-president was a stronger candidate than John Kerry. He was seen by most as a "stronger leader" than Governor Bush. Second, the failed impeachment campaign against President Clinton mobilized the Democratic base more than the Republican. And third, the Clinton-Gore administration was widely credited with the results of a growing economy.

Bush supporters responded to the Republican's core message that he was a "stronger leader" than Kerry. This was the theme of the president's advertising campaign, the most ferocious and negative in American history. Kerry was weak according to the ads. His call for a foreign policy based more on co-operation was ridiculed as "soft on terrorism" and even Kerry's war record was attacked by the president's allies.

Swarthy terrorists or wolves appeared in the final Republican ads to reinforce Bush's call to aggressive leadership in the war on terror. Osama bin Laden showed up in the campaign's final days to reinforce the message.

More importantly, the Republicans learned the lessons of 2000 and mounted a successful campaign to mobilize and expand their political base. Karl Rove, the president's strategist, mounted an effective grassroots campaign to ensure high voter turnout. In particular, a large turnout among practising Protestants and a continuing breakthrough with Catholic voters offset the Democrat's success with new voters.

How did Rove do it? For a part of the electorate that is outside of the elite mainstream, the campaign was transformed into an evangelical revival meeting. For example, in 11 states, including Ohio, there were referendums banning gay marriage, all of which passed with resounding majorities. In Florida, the swingiest of swing states, a referendum forcing young women to seek parents' consent to have an abortion inspired many direct voting appeals from Catholic and Evangelical pulpits.

In short, the Republicans' message to voters was sharp and clear. There are simple answers. America is right, its critics wrong. America would set its own rules of engagement with the world. God is on our side, the "right God," a message routinely delivered at Bush rallies.

The Democrats' talk of expanding health insurance and "global tests" was couched in complicated, nuanced terms. Kerry tried to be Bush Lite, but he did not move the Republican base. They didn't trust the messenger, and therefore, didn't care about the message.

So what now?

So what will the president do, now that he has won an election with a slight popular vote majority and with a growing and more ideological and theocratic Republican Congress? As noted above, this is one-party government in a divided country. Given Bush's past record, the 49 per cent of Americans who opposed his re-election and the 50 per cent of Americans who oppose the war will be out of luck.

The second Bush term will be "more of the same" only more so. He will surely appoint at least three new Supreme Court justices, rekindling the debate over the Roe v. Wade decision that effectively legalized abortion in the United States.

On issues such as abortion and stem cell research, Bush may well have benefited from his supporters' intensity of interest, but he is still in the minority on these questions and others. His own party faces a major challenge in the 2006 mid-term elections and the prospect of a divisive internal battle for the presidential nomination in 2008. And America is very much divided about its president. The election galvanized supporters on both sides and has ensured a vibrant opposition to the White House at the grassroots.

In most cases, these factors would be moderating influences on presidential action. However, the Bush White House is on a mission, at home and abroad. A Bush advisor recently said for example, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." He mocked opponents as living in a "reality-based community." Faced with enormous challenges to their policies, the response from the Bush White House will be unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

For Canada and the world, not to mention Americans themselves, this will be a worrisome four years. Some analysts expressed concern that a Kerry White House would see the rise of a protectionism that could hurt Canadian interests. Kerry did propose sanctions against companies that outsource jobs and wanted to ban Toronto's garbage from Michigan landfills.

However, the potential impacts of a Kerry administration on certain issues of Canada-U.S. relations would have been relatively minor compared to the challenges we face in dealing with an angry, arrogant Bush administration unconstrained by the need to seek re-election and imbued with an almost providential belief in its mission. This will be a dangerous four years for Canada and the world.

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