New York Times
November 4, 2004
Well, as Grandma used to say, at least I still have my health. ...
I often begin writing columns by interviewing myself. I did that yesterday, asking myself this: Why didn't I feel totally depressed after George H. W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis, or even when
Answer: whatever differences I felt with the elder Bush were over what was the right policy. There was much he ultimately did that I ended up admiring. And when George W. Bush was elected four years ago on a platform of compassionate conservatism, after running from the middle, I assumed the same would be true with him. (Wrong.) But what troubled me yesterday was my feeling that this election was tipped because of an outpouring of support for George Bush by people who don't just favor different policies than I do - they favor a whole different kind of America. We don't just disagree on what America should be doing; we disagree on what America is.
Is it a country that does not intrude into people's sexual preferences and the marriage unions they want to make? Is it a country that allows a woman to have control over her body? Is it a country where the line between church and state bequeathed to us by our Founding Fathers should be inviolate? Is it a country where religion doesn't trump science? And, most important, is it a country whose president mobilizes its deep moral energies to unite us - instead of dividing us from one another and from the world?
At one level this election was about nothing. None of the real problems facing the nation were really discussed. But at another level, without warning, it actually became about everything. Partly that happened because so many Supreme Court seats are at stake, and partly because Mr. Bush's base is pushing so hard to legislate social issues and extend the boundaries of religion that it felt as if we were rewriting the Constitution, not electing a president. I felt as if I registered to vote, but when I showed up the Constitutional Convention broke out.
The election results reaffirmed that. Despite an utterly incompetent war performance in Iraq and a stagnant economy, Mr. Bush held onto the same basic core of states that he won four years ago - as if nothing had happened. It seemed as if people were not voting on his performance. It seemed as if they were voting for what team they were on.
This was not an election. This was station identification. I'd bet anything that if the election ballots hadn't had the names Bush and Kerry on them but simply asked instead, "Do you watch Fox TV or read The New York Times?" the Electoral College would have broken the exact same way.
My problem with the Christian fundamentalists supporting Mr. Bush is not their spiritual energy or the fact that I am of a different faith. It is the way in which he and they have used that religious energy to promote divisions and intolerance at home and abroad. I respect that moral energy, but wish that Democrats could find a way to tap it for different ends.
"The Democrats have ceded to Republicans a monopoly on the moral and spiritual sources of American politics," noted the Harvard University political theorist Michael J. Sandel. "They will not recover as a party until they again have candidates who can speak to those moral and spiritual yearnings - but turn them to progressive purposes in domestic policy and foreign affairs."
I've always had a simple motto when it comes to politics: Never put yourself in a position where your party wins only if your country fails. This column will absolutely not be rooting for George Bush to fail so Democrats can make a comeback. If the Democrats make a comeback, it must not be by default, because the country has lapsed into a total mess, but because they have nominated a candidate who can win with a positive message that connects with America's heartland.
Meanwhile, there is a lot of talk that Mr. Bush has a mandate for his far right policies. Yes, he does have a mandate, but he also has a date - a date with history. If Mr. Bush can salvage the war in Iraq, forge a solution for dealing with our entitlements crisis - which can be done only with a bipartisan approach and a more sane fiscal policy - upgrade America's competitiveness, prevent Iran from going nuclear and produce a solution for our energy crunch, history will say that he used his mandate to lead to great effect. If he pushes for still more tax cuts and fails to solve our real problems, his date with history will be a very unpleasant one - no matter what mandate he has.