Democrats contemplate the brutal whys of defeat

It's been two weeks now and if you're a Kerry supporter you may have just finished going through all the traditional stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, considering a move to Canada, and acceptance.

If reports are to be believed, that penultimate stage nearly had you. The Canadian government found a record spike in people visiting their immigration website in the days immediately following the election. But, after considering your dislike of the cold and your inability to understand offsides in ice hockey, you decided to stay put and cope.

Now, like all the defeated, you want to know "why." Why did your man lose? Answering that question is something of a cottage industry in this town every four years: Talking heads pop up on TV offering definitive explanations that will later probably prove to be terribly off the mark. Elections, like life, take time to understand fully.

At this point, Kerry supporters can consider two broad explanations for what happened in this election.

The first is that President Bush was reelected because Karl Rove and the Bush campaign team did a genius job of making this election a referendum on John Kerry. They piled up the doubts about Senator Kerry - on everything from flip-floppery to tax-and-spendery - so high that ultimately voters simply decided they couldn't risk switching the control of the country to him - particularly in a time of war.

The second possibility is this election was a referendum on the president and voters genuinely liked the incumbent. Maybe it was issues that moved them and maybe it was more vague and personal things, such as likability - something Republican pollsters repeatedly said leading up to this election was the president's ace in the hole.

Whatever the reason, they didn't vote for Bush as the lesser of two "evils," they endorsed his leadership of the country, one way or the other.

Democrats had better hope it was the first reason. The fact that most people in the US find it hard to warm up to an awkward-speaking, windsurfing, wealthy liberal senator from Massachusetts doesn't exactly fall under the heading of earthshaking news. This is a problem that's fixable with a better candidate running a better campaign.

The second possibility, however, is of more concern - not just to Democrats, but to the nation as a whole - because it means the criteria we use to select presidents are troubling.

Bush supporters don't want to hear this, but the fact is that the past four years have been something of a mess. This administration's handling of everything from fiscal matters to the the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq has been marked by major missteps. And that's not just me talking. The conservative Economist magazine, which supported Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000, endorsed Kerry (albeit reluctantly) this year, calling the Bush administration incompetent. The right-leaning Detroit News, the newspaper I grew up reading, withheld its endorsement for Bush this year even though it endorsed him in 2000. The paper has never in its history endorsed a Democrat for president and has withheld its endorsement only twice, both during FDR's presidency.

And beyond media outlets, the number of Americans who thought the nation was on the right track before the election was actually under 50 percent.

Yes, some will argue that Bush's win had less to do with his competence in office or lack thereof, than it did with cultural issues, particularly gay marriage, where people felt the president was more in line with their views. This was certainly the view that emerged immediately after the election, as pundits cited the number of people who voted on "moral values" and noted the big turnout among cultural conservatives. And it's true that gay marriage may have been the decisive issue in the decisive state, Ohio.

But as pollster Andy Kohut has pointed out, "moral values" is such a broad phrase, it can mean so many different things it's essentially worthless in terms of determining how it affected votes. And polls don't show an appreciable rise in the number of cultural conservatives as a percentage of this year's electorate - it's not likely there were enough to create the president's 3.5 million-vote margin. We'll see in time if the great cultural conservative surge holds water as a theory, but the evidence for it is weak.

So leaving that issue aside, what we have in the 2004 election is a man who was sent back to the Oval Office promising more of the same, despite a dubious track record. That sounds like the result of a pretty effective campaign working against a pretty weak opponent.

Let's hope that's all it is. If it's something else, one has to wonder if an elected official's performance matters anymore in the US. And that's not a comforting thought.

Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.

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