WASHINGTON — I think I have just endured the toughest election of my life. With the constant anti-Bush barrage of the last year-plus, it has been difficult to keep my spirits up and stay optimistic. It was hard insisting to so many friends that I thought Bush would win, often when I didn’t feel certain about it myself.
By Saturday, probably due to a bit of exhaustion, the “missing explosives” story, and some bad opinion polls that day, I was on the verge of predicting a Kerry win in my electoral college article. I called a friend of mine, Mark, to convey my dismay and luckily he tried to persuade me otherwise. He noted that the news had become “all-Osama tape, all the time,” and that more of the electoral-college battle was taking place on Kerry’s turf than Bush’s. After thinking about it all day, a good night’s rest, and slightly better polls the next two days, by Monday afternoon I felt fairly optimistic about a Bush win when I finished my article. On Tuesday I felt so confident that the roles were reversed: I was dismissive of the exit polls and had to talk my rather worried friend out of putting much stock in them.
The question to answer isn’t so much why Bush won, but why Kerry lost. The exit polls did show that the “values” question rated very high with a lot of voters, proof that Bush ran a smart campaign. Yet values issues might not have been enough to win it for Bush if the Democrats had been tougher on national security.
Despite running a strong campaign, Bush was vulnerable, especially on Iraq. If we look at the CNN exit polls for the crucial states of Florida and Ohio, 17% and 13% respectively cited the Iraq War as their most important issue. Kerry mopped up those voters, receiving over 70% of their votes in both states. But Kerry probably wasn’t plowing much fertile swing-voter ground on the Iraq issue. Most of those voters were probably solid anti-war Democrats.
No, swing voters were more likely concerned with the War on Terror, and here Kerry never came close to sealing the deal. In Florida and Ohio, 24% and 17% respectively picked terrorism as the most important issue. Bush swept those voters, getting 87% of them in Florida and 90% in Ohio. Voters seemed to be saying, “I’m not happy with Bush on Iraq, but what would John Kerry do differently to fight terrorism?” Kerry never had a serious answer.
Instead, Kerry gave us Clinton-style triangulation on terrorism. He wanted to stay the course in Iraq, but persuade France and Germany top join us there so we could pull out our troops in four years. He criticized Bush for not having enough troops in Iraq, then proposed boosting the military by 40,000 soldiers, none of whom would be sent to Iraq. It was clumsy and unconvincing because none of it ever committed to serious use of force.
YET THE PROBLEM for the Democrats went deeper than the candidate, all the way down to the base. Even king triangulator Bill Clinton might find it impossible to triangulate on national security issues. While the Democratic base is willing to compromise on such issues as welfare reform or affirmative action, it seems intractable on matters of war. A big portion of the base sees every military endeavor as “another Vietnam.” Thus, any proposal that includes saber rattling runs a huge risk of alienating them.
It is this attitude that led to the rise of raving anti-war candidate Howard Dean. As it became clear to the Democratic base that Dean’s personality would take the party over a cliff, they quickly looked around for a palatable alternative. They decided on John Kerry because he had been willing to vote against the $87 billion to fund the troops in Iraq and was stepping up his criticism of the war. He had the added benefit of being a Vietnam Veteran, which seemed to them an answer to the charge that Democrats are weak on national security. Indeed, the Democratic base seemed to be opting for a non sequitur: you can trust us to be tough on national security because our nominee served in Vietnam.
Kerry, of course, was all too happy to oblige. He and his minions used his Vietnam vet status to answer all questions about his national security policy, even going so far as to wax indignant about how Republicans were attacking his service every time they challenged him on foreign policy issues. It wore thin with the public pretty quick, who wanted to know what, exactly, Kerry would do to keep them safe from terrorism. Kerry never had a compelling answer.
Two Democrats who might have had an answer were Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman. Neither wavered in his support of the War in Iraq, and both were gone early in the primaries. The anti-war mania had so infected the Democrats that Al Gore committed one of the most despicable acts of political betrayal by jettisoning his former running mate in favor of endorsing Dean.
The lesson of 2004 is that until the Democrats are ready to grow up and face the realities of national security — until they are ready to accept that sometimes defending our national security means we have to use force — they are going to have trouble at the polls as long as terrorism is an issue. The question should be not about whether we use force, but when and how? Since the Democratic base is still debating the first question, Kerry was unable to make any inroads into the second.
No, the Democrats are not serious about national security, and they show no signs of becoming so anytime soon (unless, of course, as Andrew Sullivan suggests we force it upon them by voting their candidate into the White House.) The Democrats will have a very difficult time taking back the presidency unless they are willing to nominate a legitimate hawk. From all indications they are a long way from doing that.