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Reading the results of November 2

By Daniel Wirls

The results of the elections of 2004 are being interpreted in a variety of ways as analysts and citizens reflect on three questions: Why did Kerry lose? How did Bush do so well? And, what does this mean for each party?

Like many, I am inclined to let loose a barrage of grim postmortems and dire predictions, but, for now, I think three notes of caution and restraint are in order.

1. The Democrats' Big Mistake: The chief problem that confronted the Democrats was their awkward stance on the war in Iraq. Many Democrats voted in 2002 in favor of the authorization of use of force. Among them were Kerry and Edwards. This was the signal mistake.

Had the Democrats presented from the start a mostly united front against a war in Iraq- - “Afghanistan Yes, Iraq No”- - Kerry would have evaded his major vulnerability: the charge of flip-flopping. Absent the ambiguities about Iraq, the accusation had no substance, no traction. Many voters cannot provide factual details in support of their preferences; they make decisions based on impressions. An abundance of evidence shows that the flip-flopping charge had a powerful impact.

This is not to say that Kerry would have won had the party been united on the war, but it might have made a difference. Exit polls and interviews with voters show that Bush's win was not a public endorsement of the war; it was, in some odd ways, an endorsement of his consistency.

2. The Republicans' Big Surprise: Few predicted that gay marriage would emerge as the new wedge issue. Exit polls show that a plurality of voters (22 percent) named “moral values” as the primary issue for them in the election (besting the economy at 20 percent and terrorism at 19 percent). Eighty percent of the “moral values” voters voted for Bush.

Ballot propositions in 11 states to ban gay marriage clearly increased the conservative turnout. Karl Rove found the 4 million evangelical voters missing from 2000, and Bush's victory in the popular vote benefited mightily from this.

Gay marriage increased Bush's totals mostly in states where he was already assured of victory, boosting his popular vote--and with it, the sense of a mandate and vindication of his tainted victory in 2000. Because Ohio passed one of the antigay marriage propositions, the issue might have provided the crucial margin in the electoral college as well.

But I wouldn't bet the farm on the staying power of this issue. It served Republican purposes for this election, but it might not do much more than that. The religious right will push, but it is likely moderate Republicans will push back. Social wedge issues can be lots of fun when effectively manipulated, but they can backfire, and certainly are no basis for a governing majority.

3. The Future for Both Parties: It would be an error for either party to draw overblown conclusions from the results. Republican zealots will be tempted to see a general mandate, an affirmation of all they stand for (we can shoot for the moon even on policies not embraced by the electorate during this election, such as the privatization of Social Security). Democrats will be drawn to exaggerated assessments and panicky remedies (be more conservative! More liberal! More middle-of-the-road!).

The danger is that the victors will see only the reasons they won; the vanquished only the reasons they lost. That is natural, but misleading and foolhardy.

The vanquished, while having to do some serious thinking about what constitutes a progressive agenda in a rapidly changing world, should not lose sight of the fact that this was still a very close election in a very divided nation. Though they can do better, and certainly be more decisive about some of the great issues, the Democrats still represent about half of that division.

Likewise, Americans are quite leery about the war in Iraq, and social wedge issues are treacherous. So the victorious had better be cautious about their mandate, especially with a massive budget deficit for which the administration has no solution.

Bush won, the Republicans did well, but the balance of power between parties and ideologies has hardly been resolved. Democrats lost but can take the opportunity to remodel. Republicans can rejoice but must face the considerable challenges and dangers--some of their own making--that confront round two of the Bush presidency.


Daniel Wirls is a professor of politics at UCSC.

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