Without looking at these two options, it’s simply
hard to comprehend how Bush got 61.7 million votes, shattering Ronald
Reagan’s old record of 54.5 million from his landslide victory in 1984.
What makes Bush’s numbers even more incredible is that he got them as
John Kerry also surpassed Reagan’s record with 58.5 million votes.
Comparing Nov. 2’s numbers with Election 2000 is
equally stunning. In four years, Bush increased his total vote by about
22 percent, even as Kerry topped Al Gore’s margin by almost 15 percent.
In earlier presidential elections when one party has managed to boost
its vote by 20 percent or so, the other party has suffered widespread
But what is perhaps most astounding is that Bush
chalked up these vote totals after compiling one of the poorest records
of any recent president: a sluggish economy, huge government deficits, a
weakening dollar, a catastrophic war in Iraq and loss of respect for the
United States around the world.
Many political pundits have put forth the
explanation that Evangelical voters assured Bush a second term because
they see him as the defender of moral “values.”
But this conventional narrative can’t fully account
for Bush’s 2004 vote. No less an expert than Bush’s political guru Karl
Rove estimated that 4 million Evangelical voters stayed home in 2000,
meaning that even if they all voted in 2004 for Bush, that would still
leave more than 7 million votes to explain.
Plus, think back on Election 2000 when the
Republican base was burning with a fierce determination to oust the
hated Clinton-Gore crowd. Why would millions of Republican voters stay
home in 2000, yet flood the polling places in 2004 despite the
discouraging results of Bush’s first term and the turnout enthusiasm on
the Democratic side?
Yet, instead of working to make sense of Bush’s
vote totals and examining the extraordinary outcome on a
county-by-county basis, the mainstream news media has mostly dismissed
questions of voting fraud as Internet-driven “conspiracy theories.”
Besides the mysteries of Bush’s vote totals, there
were Democratic myths that exploded on Nov. 2.
The Democrats’ axiom that high turnout virtually
guarantees a Democratic win proved false – assuming, of course, that
Bush’s votes were real. Based on the official results, it would seem
that expensive voter registration drives by Democrats and liberal groups
may have upped the Democratic turnout, but also served as a rallying
point to get millions of new Republican voters to the polls.
The lesson appears to be that the mechanical
function of registering new voters – while a worthy undertaking in its
own right – cannot substitute for the lack of a strong message or a
media infrastructure to communicate with voters. If Bush did bring in
almost 62 million votes, then a big part of the answer must be that the
potent conservative media machine kept the Republican base energized and
That reality should be a factor in Democratic
post-mortems and give pause to liberal voter-registration groups that
already are calling for simply more of the same for 2006 and 2008. The
Democrats invite a repeat of 2004 if they simply go for a bigger
investment in “grassroots organizing,” while ignoring the lack of a
left-of-center media apparatus that can even begin to match up with the
potent conservative media.
Another bracing lesson for Democrats is that Bush
amassed his vote total after waging an overwhelmingly negative campaign
built more around tearing down John Kerry than touting Bush’s own
achievements. Bush’s extraordinary numbers flew in the face of the old
political adage that negative campaigns only succeed by depressing the
overall vote, not by inspiring more voters to go to the polls.
In 2004, Bush appears to have generated his
electoral groundswell by tapping into a populist disdain for liberals,
an attitude that has transformed many formerly progressive regions in
Middle America into hotbeds of angry conservatism. This anger against
the supposed “liberal elites” continues to boil even though the
Republicans control all three branches of the federal government and
conservatives possess their own powerful media. [For more on this
phenomenon, see Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?]
Bush’s success also debunked the campaign advice
from many Democratic consultants who insisted that – based on their
focus groups – voters wanted a positive campaign, not negative attacks.
“Don’t be too shrill,” the consultants said. “Don’t attack the person,
attack the policy.”
In retrospect, the Democrats appear to have put
themselves in a hole during the summer when their “positive” convention
didn’t move the poll numbers. Meanwhile, the “negative” Republican
convention gave Bush a double-digit boost in the polls.
The two conventions also marked a strange reversal
of traditional roles. Usually the challenger attacks the incumbent’s
record, while the incumbent brags about his accomplishments. But in the
conventions of 2004, Kerry, the challenger, mostly went positive, while
Bush, the incumbent, went overwhelmingly negative.
So, instead of focusing the American people on why
Bush shouldn’t get a second term, the Democrats concentrated on why
Kerry deserved a first term.
Part of the Democratic thinking was avoiding a
feared media firestorm if the convention followed the supposed “Bush
bashing” of Bush opponents such as “Fahrenheit 9/11” director Michael
Moore and comedian Whoopi Goldberg, who touched off a minor riot among
conservative bloggers when she made a crude pun about Bush’s name.
Facing Republican charges that the Democrats were
planning a Bush “hate-fest,” Kerry’s convention managers toned down the
rhetoric, even excising anti-Bush comments from speeches. Instead they
stressed the feel-good message: “Hope (or help) is on the way.”
As part of this positive strategy, Democrats picked
youthful Senate candidate Barack Obama to give an upbeat keynote address
that avoided any mention of the sitting president. Kerry’s team could
have picked a senior Democrat – the likes of Robert Byrd or Ernest
Hollings – who would have had the stature to make the case that a second
Bush term should be unthinkable to Americans who care about their
But the convention managers acted as if Bush’s
failures were so obvious they didn’t need reciting. For tens of millions
of Americans, those failures apparently weren’t that obvious at all.
The Democrats also chose to spotlight Kerry’s
Vietnam War service, which further made Kerry the issue, not Bush.
Despite these red-white-and-blue themes, many Americans watching this
strange convention must have concluded that even the Democrats didn’t
think Bush was so bad.
In bending over backward to avoid a Bush
“hate-fest,” the Democrats ended up with the first “bounce-less”
convention in modern political history. They also left themselves wide
open to a fierce conservative counterattack against Kerry as weak,
lacking principles, saying whatever his advisers tell him the voters
want to hear, ready to “flip-flop” when faced with tough choices.
Swift Boat Tales
Brazenly, the conservatives even assailed Kerry’s
Vietnam War record, which included winning the Bronze Star, the Silver
Star and three Purple Hearts. The pro-Bush Swift Boat Veterans for Truth
accused Kerry of fabricating his tales of heroism. They portrayed him as
a liar, a coward and a traitor. They even denigrated the wounds that led
to his three Purple Hearts.
Though largely false, these Swift boat attacks were
heralded by the powerful conservative news media and promptly crossed
over into mainstream news outlets, such as CNN. Indeed, CNN’s intensive
coverage of the Swift boat charges may have been the most important
factor in giving the anti-Kerry smears credibility with a broad
cross-section of the American public.a
Even when many of the Swift boat accusations were
shown to be lies – after credible eyewitness accounts verified the facts
of Kerry’s heroism – the perpetrators of the political fraud were not
taken to task by CNN or other outlets that had given the stories such
currency. For much of America, Kerry remained damaged goods, which set
the stage for the Republican convention. [For more on the Swift boat
case, see Consortiumnews.com's "Reality
on the Ballot" or "Bushes
Play the 'Traitor' Card."]
In dramatic contrast to the milquetoast Democratic
convention, the GOP convention was all red meat. Rather than celebrating
Bush’s record, the Republicans ripped into Kerry’s.
Bush’s keynote speaker was the opposite of the
young and hopeful Barack Obama. The Republicans picked the elderly and
bitter Zell Miller, a Democratic senator who had turned against his
party. Miller devoted his prime-time address to castigating Kerry as
unfit to be president.
The Republican delegates cheered every slam against
Kerry with taunts of “flip flop.” Some delegates wore Purple Heart
band-aids to mock Kerry’s war wounds. In effect, the Republican
convention became the “hate-fest” that Republicans had predicted the
Democratic convention would be. But the irony passed almost unnoticed in
the mainstream press.
Even the Purple Heart band-aids served mostly as a
reason for journalists to reprise the criticism of Kerry’s war record,
rather than an opportunity to comment on the outrageous tactics of the
Republicans. Reporters, who had fumed over the supposed unfairness of
Moore’s documentary or the tastelessness of Goldberg’s jokes, didn’t
confront Republican leaders with accusatory questions about whether the
band-aid-wearing delegates should be condemned.
Another irony was that Bush emerged from his nasty
convention as the protector of the best of American “values,” with Kerry
somehow judged to be lacking in morality and decency. Bush was viewed by
many Middle Americans as a regular guy – despite his history of
privilege and his avoidance of military service in Vietnam. Kerry was
deemed the effete elitist despite his decorated service in Vietnam. [For
more on Bush's history, see Robert Parry's
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise
of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
Kerry failed to overcome these animosities although
he did speak repeatedly about the importance of strong “values” in
guiding government action. Indeed, Kerry mentioned “values” in almost
every speech as did his vice presidential running mate John Edwards,
although they defined the concept differently than Bush.
Kerry and Edwards cast “values” not in strictly
religious terms but in the context of wise government policies seeking
to ensure that families can afford health care, that senior citizens
have the medicines they need, that the environment is protected, that
students can access educational opportunities, that workers can find
good-paying jobs, that soldiers face the dangers of war only when
While lacking Bush’s overt Christian “signaling,”
the Kerry-Edwards “values” also were rooted in Christian teachings: care
for the sick, be good stewards of God’s creation, provide for the least
among us, seek peaceful solutions whenever possible. But the Democrats’
“value” talk apparently did them little good.
Instead, conservative leaders appear to have made
substantial progress in casting fundamentalist Christians as the victims
of an intolerant secular elite led by liberal Democrats. Some Christian
Right leaders even depict the founding American principle of separation
of church and state as an assault on the rightful recognition of the
United States as a “Christian nation.”
This victimization theme is an important piece in
understanding the anger that drives today’s U.S. conservatives. Even
when sporting Purple Heart band-aids to ridicule Kerry’s war wounds or
seeking a constitutional amendment to ban gays from marrying,
conservative Christians see themselves as the victims, not the bullies.
So, when John Kerry stakes out a classical position
on the separation of church and state, he is part of that “secular
elite” denying Christians their rightful place in charge of the U.S.
government. Kerry represents those “anti-Christians” who would place the
science of evolution over the Biblical version of creation, or block
mandatory prayers in public schools, or defend a woman’s right to have
an early-term abortion.
By contrast, George W. Bush has won the support of
many Christian conservatives by blurring the line between church and
state, supporting a constitutional amendment against gay marriage,
allowing books on creationism to sit beside scientific explanations for
the Grand Canyon, and moving toward more church-state collaboration with
his “faith-based initiatives.”
So what do the Democrats have to do to compete for
power? The same consultants are back giving advice about adding more
“values” talk to their speeches, registering more voters, and
positioning the party more to the right.
But that advice may miss the real lessons of
Election 2004, which might suggest a more aggressive Democratic
--First, ascertain whether there was any rigging
of the vote, either through systematic suppression of balloting in
Democratic precincts or through Republican computer manipulation.
Washington insiders might laugh at these possibilities, but millions
of Americans believe that George W. Bush, again, cheated his way to
victory. If those doubts aren’t addressed, many Americans won’t go to
the polls in 2006 and 2008, thinking that the fix is in and why
--Second, begin a genuine conversation with the
American people; don’t just memorize more Bible passages. While the
Republicans may be manipulative in their politics, they have used the
pervasive conservative media – especially talk radio – to engage the
public in a give-and-take on political issues. The feedback has proved
invaluable when calibrating political themes.
--Third, address the conservative caricature of
liberalism head-on. Again, the Republicans have a huge advantage with
the conservative media reaching virtually every corner of America and
especially dominant in Middle America where outlets of information are
more limited than in the urban centers of the coasts. Liberals also
can’t count on the mainstream press to give them a fair shake. If they
ever hope to win, liberals have no choice but to build a media
infrastructure of their own.
--Fourth, tell it like it is to the American
people, not only about Bush and his administration, but level about
what the liberal vision is for the United States. If the country’s
political system is to be revitalized, liberals must counter-attack in
what the conservatives call the “war of ideas.”
Relying on stealth politics to sneak back to power
just won’t work. It will only look phony and defensive, opening
Democrats to a new – and not entirely false – round of accusations that
they don’t know what the stand for and just say what they think people
want to hear in a craven bid to get elected.
The clearest lesson of Election 2004 may be that
there are no shortcuts for the Democrats to reestablish themselves as
America’s governing party.