The 2004 Election and Aftermath

Peter W. Schramm

April 1, 2005

Before the election last November, it was reported in the press that Karl Rove’s strategy in the campaign was "to play on the other guy’s turf." And so the Republicans did. For decades Democratic political theology had asserted that if they could only increase the turnout they would win. Well, turnout nation-wide increased by 4.7% over 2000, and in Ohio it increased by 8.2%, while in Florida turnout increased by 8.4%. John Kerry got 16% more votes than Gore did in 2000, but Bush won 23% more votes than he took in 2000. In other words, Bush got 8 million more votes than he did in 2000.

This was accomplished not merely because the GOP get-out-the-vote effort was more effective (and it was), but because it became clear to the voters that Bush was better than his opponent, his purposes were clear, and he was more to be trusted than a fellow who wanted to relive his opposition to the Vietnam War when he compared the American soldier to that of Genghis Khan. Offense was taken at that comparison, and righteous indignation followed. But Kerry didn’t lose this election. Bush won it, and won it impressively.

It should not surprise us that with his impressive re-election, President Bush is sounding even more confident and authoritative than before and will keep his word by pressing ahead with those policies he talked about during the campaign. Even Bill Clinton understands Bush’s victory. Clinton said after the election: "The Republicans had a clear message, a good messenger, great organization and great strategy." Perhaps he is applying to become a future candidate’s political advisor. Note that Hillary sounds ever more moderate, from abortion to Iraq.

Bush is creating a new Republican majority, for this was not merely a personal victory, as, say, Reagan’s in 1984. President Bush said before the election that he didn’t want "a lonely victory." He didn’t get one. He got a Republican Party victory. The GOP vote cut into Hispanic voters, blacks, women, Jews, and even Democrats. As Churchill once said, "You must look at the facts because they look at you." I recommend to the Democrats that they start looking at the facts. The Republicans picked up four Senate seats, four House seats, and this was the sixth consecutive election in which the GOP won majorities in both the Senate and the House. Bush carried 31 states that elect 62 of the 100 Senators. This has significance for the 2006 elections because the Democrats will be at a disadvantage, for they hold 18 out of the 33 Senate seats up for election, and 6 of the seats they hold are in states Bush won in 2004.

Because Tom Daschle lost, the diminutive Harry Reid of Nevada is now the new minority leader in the Senate. The leadership of the Democratic Party includes the morose Nancy Pelosi and the shrill Howard Dean, who has become the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. A few days before his election, he announced to the country that "I hate Republicans and everything they stand for." This will not be helpful to his cause, although he doesn’t seem to know it. The moderate Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana voted against confirming Dr. Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, joining old liberals like Kennedy and Boxer, and thereby confirming that he is an opportunist by appeasing the left in the Democratic Party. This means he is running for president. And he will fail. Then we saw John Kerry give his first public interview since losing the election. It so happened that the interview was conducted on the same day that the Iraqis went to vote, and we were reminded by the many words he used for no purpose of how good it was that this guy did not become president.

We will look back on this period a generation from now and say that the political realignment in the country began in 1980, hit full speed in 1994, and came near to a finish in 2004. In a realigning period—and there have only been a few, the most notable were 1860 and 1932-36—what happens is that a political party becomes intellectually, philosophically, and eventually electorally, so dominant that the other party ends up barely surviving, and can only survive by playing second fiddle to the dominant party representing the majority. The most recent and textbook-like example of this is how the Republican Party became the "me too" Party by the 1950’s. The GOP would not confront head-on the ideological basis of the Democratic world view, but was compelled to argue that they were more competent and could accomplish the Liberal ends of the Democratic view more efficiently. The GOP became the moon revolving around the Democratic sun. Think about the Eisenhower years, and then think about Reagan’s attempt to take Liberalism on directly, and then note that Gingrich did the same in 1994. Those were the two important events in this realignment, and now Bush has been re-elected and the whole GOP has prospered.

If there is any doubt about whether or not we are in a period of rolling realignment, the matter will be determined in the 2006 elections. By all historical standards, the party holding a majority in both branches of government should lose House and Senate seats in a non-presidential year of a president’s second term. It has always been thus. Yet, if the Republicans hold the gains of 2004, the realignment—the earthquake-like shift—will have been completed and the Republican Party will be the governing party, both philosophically and electorally, for at least thirty years. The Democrats will have to settle for what in politics will count as a permanent minority status.

Elections have both short and long-term consequences. Bush gave an extraordinary Second Inaugural Address in which the long term cause and purpose of his policies were poetically revealed. The State of the Union speech explained what the immediate effect of the election meant for policy. It turns out that President Bush understands something about the use of political capital. As he transformed the American electorate, so he intends to transform the country and have a deep effect on the world. This is surely a man who our grandchildren will study, even in public schools. Unlike with Reagan, the last excellent president, I predict that Bush’s reputation for wisdom and prudence will begin before he leaves office.

Look at what has happened since the election. The Afghans voted, as have the Palestinians, and the Ukrainians were able to force—through the moral authority of people power—a new and honest election on their still-communist rulers. The good guys won the next election. The Iraqis showed great courage by voting as they walked passed graffiti saying, "If you vote, you die." Almost sixty percent of them proudly showed their purple fingers to the American mainstream media. Even they were moved by the nobility of the Iraqis’ actions. Yet many Democrats were still calling for an exit strategy from this "quagmire," as the Iraqis were in the process of forming a new democratically elected government.

Syria has played an ugly hand in Lebanon, and it has backfired. The Lebanese have started marching en masse demanding that Syria pull out of their country while chanting pro-American slogans. The international pressure from all quarters (remember that Bush’s first trip overseas was to Europe), including France, Germany, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League as well as the UN, forced Assad, the son, to pull back his Syrian troops in Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley, and maybe farther. Saudi Arabia has held some municipal elections, a first, and the President of Egypt asserted that from now on there will be more than one political party running for offices in that country, including the presidency.

Yasser Arafat is dead, and Israeli Prime Minister Sharon met with Palestinian Authority President Abbas (who was actually elected) and Sharon’s cabinet approved a plan to withdraw settlements from the Gaza Strip as they released 500 Palestinian prisoners. The map of the Middle East is beginning to take on a different shape. Liberals had always asserted that the fabled "Arab street" would become progressively more anti-American the longer we stayed in Iraq. Well, the liberal pundits were wrong. And did I mention that Dan Rather got caught being partisan?

It turns out that the Arab people, each deeply oppressed in their own country, are perfectly inclined to try something other than the harsh despotism they have known for generations: Their fear of tyranny has been replaced by courage, the necessary disposition for the establishment of moderate regimes. Those who have argued that Bush’s Middle East strategy must fail, are now silent. It is good that we don’t have to hear Senator Kennedy rave on about how we are in another quagmire, another Vietnam.

But the Bush team is not restricting itself to foreign affairs. The President is pushing with all his might to reform the Social Security system. Whatever the outcome, he has proven, once and for all, that it is no longer the third rail of American politics. Indeed, he has proven that the Republicans can bring up any major issue on the ground of principle and thereby make certain that what had been thought of as untouchable core Liberal policies—from welfare to taxation, to entitlements and Social Security, to the power of courts to do politics rather than uphold the law—can now be addressed and re-argued. No small contribution, all this.

We should not be surprised if we see in the President’s walk a more authoritative forward motion in his second term as he moves toward those purposes for which we re-elected him. This will certainly be the most satisfying second term for a president in living memory. Much will be attempted, and more will be accomplished than any one of us thought possible just a few months ago.

Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.