David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, asks “Why are we still tied?” — meaning more or less equally divided between red states and blue states. He calls this “the central mystery of this election” and theorizes that it is owing to something in the very nature of Republican and Democratic perceptions of the world and of the qualities desirable in a leader. “Republicans,” he says, “admire a president who is elevated above his executive branch colleagues,” someone they feel is “set apart by virtue of exceptional moral qualities.” Such leaders “set broad goals and remain resolute in times of crisis” while those admired by Democrats “engage in constant deliberative conversations” in a collegial setting. “It just so happens that America is evenly divided about what sort of leader we need: the Republican who leads with his soul or the Democrat who leads with his judgment.”
This may be true, but it tells us not why but how we are divided. For the why, I wonder whether or not the nearly even red-blue split can be said to be a kind of statistical artifact of the final and total extraction of principle from politics. Up until the 1990s, that is, there was still a meaningful ideological distinction between the two parties. If you voted Democratic you knew you were voting for more government but weaker, less aggressively poised defense; if you voted Republican you were voting for less government but stronger defense. After the Gingrich debacle and the Clintonian “triangulation” of the mid-'90s, however, these distinctions ceased to be very meaningful. “The era of big government is over,” said Clinton, and suddenly cut the ground from under the resurgent Republicans. George W. Bush learned the lessons of triangulation as well, and offered his own version: Compassionate Conservatism. Clinton signed the Welfare Reform bill while Bush reversed himself on “nation-building” after 9/11.
Now John Kerry is running for president completely without reference to his career in politics. Nothing that he stood for in the 1980s and 1990s does he stand for now except taxing the rich. Indeed, that relic of Democratic class-war rhetoric is almost the only vestige of ideological difference between the two parties. Like that other Massachusetts liberal, Michael Dukakis, under whom he served as Lieutenant Governor, Kerry wants to make this election “about competence, not ideology.” This is just as well, because the ideology he has espoused throughout his political career is no more popular now than it has been since Lyndon Johnson left office. Once he might have been tied to it anyway, as Dukakis the “Massachusetts liberal” was, but in the post-Clinton era there seems to be a widespread attitude that politicians should be given a wide scope for self-reinvention. After all, if they don’t think that ideology is important, why should we?
At any rate, it seems to me undeniable that neither candidate is identified by the electorate with any clearly understood principles, either conservative or liberal. Each no doubt has a base in states historically identified with one tendency or the other. Bush has no more chance of winning Massachusetts than Kerry has of winning Texas. But on the middle ground between the two tendencies — which has grown much narrower and, as Brooks points out, is more a matter of style than substance — both are fighting to take possession of the same territory. Each will say whatever he thinks likely to draw that dividing line between them a millimeter to the right or left of where on the basis of more and more sophisticated polling it is already perceived to be. That means that the even division of the electorate would be likely in the absence of any outside force not only to persist but to get more even.
But there is an outside force, and that is the media. The events of the past week have made it more clear than ever that they are now not even bothering to disguise their pro-Kerry slant, and this makes it much more easy for Kerry to pander, much more difficult for Bush. Kerry is allowed to make the ludicrous claims that he would have captured Osama bin Laden or got results by doing “everything different” in Iraq without challenge, while Bush is held accountable for every accident and failure attributable to the fog of war as well as for the events and strategies in which his or his deputies’ and ministers’ conscious purposes went astray. The only question now is whether or not the media will be able to win the election for Kerry. It is certainly possible, but so is a backlash among those who may finally be made aware of the undeniable evidence of the media’s partisanship. America’s and the world’s future may well depend on how savvy a few thousand people in Ohio have become as media critics.