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What Went Wrong

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The Crushing Political Defeat of 2004


By Eli Ungar

A few weeks ago, if you had told me that I’d be writing this article, I would have called you a cynic. Living here in our nice blue upper-Midwestern bubble, it seemed not only possible, but likely, that George W. Bush would be fired on November 2. When I went to vote, I felt a little like Donald Trump punching that ballot in the Kerry-Edwards spot. But we were all mistaken. As the implications of this defeat begin to settle, I feel compelled to ask: What went wrong? The knee-jerk reaction that many have expressed is that Kerry was not the right man for the job. This is supported by the fact that while Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 by some 500,000 votes, Kerry fell four million votes short of even that meaningless victory. What’s perplexing about this is that by all indications Kerry seems to have been a stronger candidate than Gore and the Democratic get out the vote effort actually worked. While the overall percentage of young voters remained at 17 percent, there were far more young people voting in this election than voted in 2000. So what happened? The answer that many inquiring minds have arrived at can be summarized in two words: Karl Rove.

Karl Rove is being hailed as a political genius because he understood that in order to win, he needed to direct his campaign at the born-again Christians that now constitute 40 percent of our national population. The sociological distinction between this group and the ever growing “Evangelicals” is a bit fuzzy, but together, these two groups handed the president his victory. Furthermore, the most important issue to voters this time around was neither Iraq nor the economy. Rather, it was “values,” and by a large margin voters who cared about “values” voted for Shrubby.

This is where I get angry. When did “values” become a republican selling point? What sort of “values” allow 45 million Americans to go without health insurance? What kind of values dictate that we need a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as a heterosexual relationship? What’s worse ethically, getting a blowjob from an intern, or killing 100,000 innocent civilians?

Not once did the Democrats take it to the Republicans on these issues. Moreover, Kerry came across as somehow insincere when he talked about values. Was this Kerry’s fault? I think not. The Kerry-Edwards campaign simply failed to frame their issues in terms of values. This miscalculation can be traced back to an early strategic decision taken by the Democrats to target undecided voters. While the Democrats proceeded to tip-toe around delicate issues like abortion and gay marriage so as not to offend any potential swingers, Karl Rove was able to keep the President on message with a clear delineation of his position. The effect, that Rove further pushed with the whole “flip-flop” angle, was that Bush looked decisive while Kerry came across as weak.

The skeptics out there will say that even if the Kerry campaign had focused more on values, they still could not have defeated Bush. I accept this argument, but the election is symptomatic of a much larger cultural issue that we face today. In this bitterly divided country, where the culture wars rage ever hotter, the conservatives have somehow succeeded in painting themselves as the “moral majority.” Liberals need to stop allowing these people to define our national ethics. People like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson want us to believe that the world is divided into the saved and the sinner, that to not have Jesus means to live a life without values. For some reason, no one challenges them on these points. Most liberals just dismiss them as religious nut jobs and continue with their lives. The problem is that this has produced a de facto legitimacy for fundamentalist values. When the left is no longer vocal about their values, the only values that get air-time are those of the Falwells and the Robertsons.

It is just as important for people on the left to understand that being religious doesn’t mean being fundamentalist. Liberals like Bill Mahr often express their disdain for religious beliefs in favor of a more rational world view. We need to leave behind the fights of the Enlightenment and understand that religion is not necessarily the enemy of science and reason. Liberals also have to come to a better understanding of the complex and important role religion plays in people’s lives. This is where the real healing of the country needs to take place. There will always be religious extremists spewing forth ideology. The left needs to reframe the debate by putting forth a serious values agenda of their own in order to redefine and repackage liberal values for the next generation.

Listening to Senator-elect Barack Obama the other day, I was filled once again with the hope that I thought I’d lost on November 3. There is a brighter future ahead for this country, but there’s a lot of work to be done in the meantime.

Illustration by Martin Azari

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