|Kerry Goes Down
Copyright November 3, 2004
hen the dust settles, Democrats must take a searching inventory of what went wrong in campaign 2004. President George W. Bush triumphantly declared victory, winning decisively in both the Electoral College [279 to Kerry's 252] and popular vote [51% to 48%], the first popular majority since George H.W. Bush beat former Mass. Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988. Bush carried four more Republican senators on his coattails, giving the GOP and commanding majority in the U.S. Senate [55-45]. Republicans also expanded their majority in the House [228-207], helping assure Bush's next legislative agenda. “A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation,” said Bush, throwing an olive branch to Kerry supporters still stunned by a devastating loss. Democrats must go back to the drawing board and figure out what went wrong.
During the primaries, Kerry generated little excitement, especially when compared to other Democratic candidates. Kerry couldn't fire up the same enthusiasm as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose antiwar passion and combativeness awakened the Democratic base. When Dean self-destructed in Iowa, Democrats lined up behind Kerry despite reservations about his lack of charisma. All Democratic candidates had drawbacks, giving Bush a leg up heading into November. Not only were there worries about Kerry's personals but his liberal credentials opened up serious doubts about the general election. Former presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) raised red flags, insisting that a successful Democratic candidatelike former President Bill Clintonmust navigate the political center. Kerry leaned too far left for mainstream voters.
Bush highlighted Kerry's liberal credentials in the debates, borrowing a page out of his father's playbook with Michael Dukakis. Kerry tried to change his stripes but Bush successfully painted Kerry outside the mainstream. As it turned out, Bush beat Kerry [60% to 40%], with suburbanites and rural voters, whose “family values” parallel a growing electoral majority, including a rapidly expanding Hispanic Christian population. Kerry's Northeast liberal mindset didn't resonate with bible-belt Southerners and Midwesterners, resonating with Bush's social conservative values, especially his views on gay marriage and abortion. Without charisma, Kerry couldn't expand his base beyond traditional liberal groups or, for that matter, go after crossover Republicans. Kerry's Northeasterner mentality prevented him from connecting with moderate Republicans opposed to Bush's Iraq war.
Emphasizing terrorism, Bush successfully hammered away at Kerry's national security credentials. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth relentlessly pounded Kerry's military credentials, leaving Kerry weakened after months of attacks. By the time Kerry came to, the damage was done. His campaign was on the defense for months until the presidential debates finally presented a different picture. Had Kerry not won the debates, the election might have been a landslide. By keeping the race focused on the war on terror and Iraq, the White House convinced voters it was no time to change horses. After watching military credentials blasted for months, Kerry couldn't convince voters he was ready to be commander-in-chief. While Kerry sent mixed signals on Iraq, Bush never wavered, leaving voters uncomfortable about changing management. Even fear of the draft didn't turn young voters away from Bush.
Given Kerry's liberal credentials, he finished strong, holding Bush to a narrow 2% margin in Ohio. Kerry did everything asked of him, despite fighting a cultural trend, celebrating “family values” in rural and suburban America. Four years earlier, Bush beat former Vice President Al Gore by 4% in Ohio. While Bush gets the win, it's clear that Kerry's messageespecially about the economywas getting through. Like everything else, it was too late. Though Kerry lost Iowa, he performed well in the Hawkeye state, despite current trends toward social and religious conservatism. Kerry's stance on abortionespecially his ambiguous answer during the debatestold Southern and Midwestern Christians that Kerry inhabited a different planet. With voter turnout good but not spectacular, Kerry couldn't persuade enough first-time votersespecially minorities and young peopleto go to the polls.
On balance, Kerry and the Democrats have nothing to be guilty about. They waged a competitive fight, nearly upending Bush in Ohio. Bush can thank Clinton for pushing “family values” back into mainstream America. While there's a great cultural divide, Democrats must find a way to bridge the gap during the next four years. Kerry's loss puts Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton back into the mix for '08something that promises to keep “family values” in the forefront. Over the next two years, Democrats must try to figure out how they plan to capture a growing body of conservative voters. Given Kerry's background, he squeezed every drop out of his candidacy. In the end, he couldn't change his liberal stripes and stem a rising tide of conservatism in rural and suburban America. Bush proved he had his finger on the American pulse. It's now up to Democrats to tune in.
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