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Explaining John Kerry's defeat
America's right turn?

November 12, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7

MEDIA PUNDITS are already touting George Bush's victory on November 2 as evidence that the U.S. is a deeply conservative country that puts "moral values" above any other consideration. Some on the left are echoing this, arguing that the U.S. population has now put itself on record as supporting Bush's war on the world.

But is this media spin correct? Socialist Worker's LANCE SELFA looks at the election results and comes to different conclusions.

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HARDLY HAD the votes been tallied, and the conventional wisdom to explain Bush's 3.5 million-vote margin over John Kerry had already taken shape. According to exit polls, we were told, 22 percent of voters cited "moral values" as their chief concern--trumping even Iraq, terrorism and the economy. And 80 percent of these "values voters" backed Bush.

"[Kerry's] stiffness cannot fully explain the 'God gap' that drives people of faith, and those more concerned with moral issues than economic ones, to vote disproportionately Republican," the Los Angeles Times wrote in an editorial. "They just don't believe that the Democrats share their values. More than any other factor, this failure cost the Democrats the presidency and four Senate seats on Tuesday."

The right-wing Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) put it similarly: "The problem is that many millions of voters simply do not believe that Democrats take their cultural fears and resentments seriously, and that Republicans do."

Some left-wing commentators sounded the same themes--like Nation columnist Katha Pollitt. "Maybe this time, the voters chose what they actually want: Nationalism, pre-emptive war, order not justice, 'safety' through torture, backlash against women and gays, a gulf between haves and have-nots, government largesse for their churches and a my-way-or-the-highway president," Pollitt wrote. "Where, I wonder, does that leave us?"

Pollitt's picture of the U.S. as populated by right-wing yahoos fits neatly with the mainstream media claim that Bush's victory symbolized a revolt of conservative country bumpkins against liberal city slickers in New York and San Francisco.

But this explanation--whatever its form--doesn't hold up when you look at the data from exit polls. According to those polls, Bush actually lost a little ground in rural areas, compared to the 2000 election. But he polled a full 10 percentage points better in urban areas.

Also, if you compare the composition of voters between this year and 2000, you find that the percentage of evangelical Christians remained the same; the percentage of people opposed to abortion remained the same; and the percentage of people who say they pray every day didn't change either. Slightly more evangelicals voted for Bush in 2004 than in 2000, but there wasn't a great surge of the religious right to the polls--at least on a nationwide level.

The media's focus on the role of one segment of the electorate--conservative Christians--in determining the outcome obscures the fact that Bush did better across the board.

Bush's strategy of firing up his base assured that voters who showed up at the polls were more conservative. But this wasn't confined to one group--it applied to virtually every group that exit polls break out data for.

Some liberal commentators made the point that Bush beat Kerry by 5.5 million votes in the 11 states of the old Confederacy--meaning that Kerry won the popular vote in the rest of the country. But Bush nevertheless did better against Kerry than against Al Gore in so-called "blue" states like California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. It's easy for liberals to point their fingers at Southern and rural backwaters, but Bush gained ground in their own backyards--where you would think the pull of "Anybody But Bush" would be strongest.

In fact, Democratic pollster Mark Penn said that shifts toward Bush among Latinos and women--two Democratic "base" groups--more easily explain Bush's popular vote victory than the votes of the Christian Right.

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SO THE real question isn't why Bush won, but why Kerry couldn't hold onto groups that reliably vote Democratic--minorities, women, city dwellers. Or why, after an unprecedented effort to push up Democratic turnout, Kerry couldn't inspire 45 percent of the population--disproportionately working-class, female and minority--to go to the polls.

This leads right back to the character of Kerry's campaign--his compromised Republican-Lite strategy of pursuing conservative "swing voters," instead of presenting people likely to vote Democrat with a compelling reason to choose him over Bush.

Kerry accepted the terms of debate that the Bush administration set in the post-September 11 ideological climate. So he twisted and turned on the Iraq war--voting to authorize Bush's invasion, criticizing it during the primaries, and then, after clinching the nomination, swinging right once more.

People who were motivated to vote against Bush because of the Iraq war were presented with a Democratic challenger who declared that he still would have voted to authorize an invasion, even knowing that there were no weapons of mass destruction--and that he was dedicated to "winning" the war.

Some of the "inside the campaign" reporting emerging from publications like Newsweek and Time shows that Bush's campaign brain trust couldn't believe how easy it was to get Kerry to walk into the trap Bush set when he asked if Kerry would still vote for the war knowing that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Not only did Kerry's "yes" demoralize people who could have been motivated to vote for him, but it fit right into the Bush campaign's portrayal of Kerry as a flip-flopper.

It was like this with any number of issues. Terrorism? Kerry tried to portray himself as tougher than Bush. Gay marriage? Kerry opposed it, but said the decision should be left to the states--which is exactly what voters in the 11 states that passed referendums banning gay marriage did. Jobs and health care? Kerry promised tax breaks to business.

With Kerry mouthing Republican talking points, he actually helped to legitimize many of Bush's disastrous policies. No wonder so many voters were willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt, even though they were unhappy with most of his policies.

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MEANWHILE, THOSE on the left committed to Kerry's victory spent months haranguing Ralph Nader and his supporters--and contributed to the disappearance of any ideological alternative. At a time when Bush's popularity was cratering over the disastrous war in Iraq, most of the antiwar movement got behind a pro-war candidate--bringing activism to a virtual standstill.

This is why Pollitt's post-election rant is so disingenuous. "One leftist intellectual I saw at an election-night party suggested to me that Kerry shot himself in the foot when he didn't throw Abu Ghraib in Bush's face and proclaim that as president he would never permit torture," Pollitt wrote. "I would have wept with joy to hear that speech, but where is the evidence that significant numbers of voters not already committed to Kerry--let alone voters who supported Bush--were outraged by Abu Ghraib? Did I miss the demonstrations, the sit-ins, the teach-ins, the lying down in traffic by swing voters and nonvoters to force the Bush administration to account for this outrageous crime against humanity?"

Pollitt didn't "miss the demonstrations." But that's the point--no one organized any. And the main reason for that is that leaders of the antiwar movement didn't want to embarrass their pro-war candidate.

In 2000, liberals blamed Ralph Nader for Al Gore's defeat. This year, the new target for the likes of Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank is San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom--along with anyone who advocates gay marriage. Yet by running scared from the issue of gay marriage, the Democrats and liberals helped Bush and the right make the case that there's something weird or wrong about gays and lesbians having the same rights as heterosexuals.

Ordinary people in the U.S. aren't part of some reactionary mass, and their consciousness isn't fixed in stone. To take a small example, consider that 60 percent of the 2004 electorate supports either marriage rights or civil unions for gays and lesbians--a position that was considered "controversial" only four years ago.

Consciousness can shift to the left--if people's life experience challenges their ideas and if they hear a left alternative. By the same token, it can shift in the other direction if those who stand for peace and justice remain silent.

The Bush gang's announced agenda of more war, privatizing Social Security and ending legal abortion will force millions of people--including some who voted for the Republicans--to fight back. It's the job of the left to build these struggles wherever they occur--and to build a real alternative to the rotten politics of the status quo.

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