Our country is better off for the fact that President Bush won last week's election by a decisive margin. The last thing we needed was another result like we had four years ago, when the counting and legal wrangling delayed the final outcome until well into December. Although most people expected a close election this time around, the three-million-vote margin was enough to denude any legal challenges; even voting delays in Ohio only extended the drama to the next morning. John Kerry conceded graciously and promptly. There would be no talk this time of anyone stealing the election, or of the difference between the popular vote and the electoral vote.
The 2004 general election produced what citizens expect of an election: an unambiguous decision about who will be our president.
Going into the election, I thought Kerry was going to win. Signs of his success seemed to be all around me, but then, I live in Minnesota, one of the states Kerry won. Furthermore, I live in Minneapolis, where Kerry won 78 percent of all votes cast. In the end, however, an old political adage proved sound: it takes a distinctive candidate to beat an incumbent. Not only does a candidate need obvious differentiation from an incumbent but he needs a clear message about where he will lead. For the most part, John Kerry failed in this regard.
Here are a few thoughts about why the election resulted in a Bush victory. My bias as a Republican probably comes through in my analysis but I am not offering this to widen any partisan divide; my assumption is that sincere observation from one citizen's perspective can be useful to those who are interested in politics on almost any level.
Perhaps the most important issue in the election was the war and John Kerry's position wasn't sufficiently different from President Bush's. Kerry had a lot of criticism about the past, and said he never would have gotten us into this situation in the first place. At this point, however, more people are interested in the future than the past and, looking forward, Kerry's message was the same as Bush's message. Kerry wasn't going to withdraw troops immediately. He was going to stay until the job was done, train Iraqi citizens, and withdraw our troops only after a certain level of security is achieved. This is what Bush had been saying all along. The difference between the candidates on the future of the war was indistinguishable.
Indeed, Kerry spent a lot of time looking at history. He told us he was a veteran, but that fact confused more than it convinced. We could never really figure out what to make of his military service. Was he proud or ashamed of his service in Vietnam? He was on both sides of that question. Then, he pointed to mistakes he said Bush made in the past four years. Kerry never said anything that convinced me he would not have made the same mistakes, or that he would not have made other equally grave mistakes. Most of us are Monday morning quarterbacks to some degree, so we know how much stock to put into second-guessing -- not much, and that's apparently what most Americans did.
Kerry tried to make a big issue of the economy, but it turned out to be less of an issue than he hoped. While in a nation of 280 million people it seems there always will be pockets of trouble, for the most part the economy hasn't been all that bad. Kerry tried to make an issue out of job loss, but the unemployment rates were in a range most people deem acceptable. Plus, I think there is a difference between what is reported in the newspapers and what Americans are actually experiencing. The U.S. Labor Department uses an unemployment figure derived from something called the “establishment” survey. This means that several of the country's largest firms report their payroll levels and the Labor Department issues an unemployment rate based on that survey -- most recently coming out at 5.5 percent. But in today's economy, where so many entrepreneurs work out of their homes or in very small businesses, this method of assessing employment levels is inaccurate. Especially where I live, there are many people making a good freelance living. Those people count as unemployed in the establishment survey. Even me -- I am self-employed and I don't show up in the establishment survey. Us folks making a living on our own show up in another survey, called the “household” survey, but the results of that survey don't get nearly the press play that the establishment survey gets. Kerry was always using the grimmest available statistics on the labor front, which made for great rhetoric, but failed to match with most people's experience. And, immediately after the election, the Labor Department, using its antiquated measures, announced 337,000 new jobs had been created in October.
There was a big difference between the candidates on health care, but I think most people are skeptical that anyone can do very much to improve the system. Sure, the government might be able to nibble around the edges of this problem and slow the increase of health care costs by a percent or two, but the government cannot change a fundamental law of economics. People are living longer and the demand for health care simply outweighs the supply of doctors and other health care professionals. No matter what you do with insurance, co-pays, and federal programs, you are going to have rising costs as long as the demand exceeds the supply. No one seems to know how to fix this problem and most people understand this, so that is why Kerry was unable to turn this into a compelling issue for his campaign.
Another issue where Kerry failed to gain traction was the deficit. This could have been a huge issue in the campaign, but in the end Kerry lacked the credibility to argue convincingly that he could lead a deficit reduction effort. Kerry rightly criticized the president for turning a budget surplus into a sizeable deficit but he lacked the credentials to convince anyone that he could do anything about it. It was easy to point to the late 1990s, when the budget was balanced, and take credit for it since the Democrats held the presidency at the time. But I don't think most people were buying it; I know I wasn't. The reason the budget reached balance in the late 1990s was because of the work of the Republicans in Congress, largely elected in 1994. Also, the Internet boom fueled the economy like nothing else in the last 50 years. The boom created many new, high-paying jobs (albeit relatively short-lived). A lot of new tax revenue was generated. Those two developments combined to result in a balanced budget. It had very little to do with President Clinton and the Democrats. If you go back through history, you see it is generally the Democrats who have run up spending, not the Republicans. Rightly or wrongly, just as the Republicans have a reputation for catering to the rich, the Democrats have a reputation for fiscal laziness. It was a very hard sell from the outset that Kerry could be trusted more than a Republican to balance the budget.
Social Security proved to be an even bigger problem for Kerry, the candidate who said that he wouldn't change the system at all. When asked about Social Security in one of the debates, he said Congress fixed the problem in the late 1990s. That was news to everyone! Social Security is fundamentally a problem of an increasing percentage of people qualifying for benefits while a decreasing percentage of people are paying into it. The system is destined for bankruptcy unless something changes. But Kerry really had his head in the sand on this issue. Not that any of the solutions are easy; and Bush's solution of privatizing a portion of peoples' Social Security accounts is fraught with issues but at least he acknowledged that something needs to be done. People, apparently, wanted at least that much.
Finally, Kerry suffered at the hands of those who oppose abortion. Although Democrats don't like to acknowledge it, there are a lot of Americans who are ashamed and distressed that 1.4 million abortions take place in this country every year. Many voters want a candidate who will at least admit this is a problem. And these voters are particularly turned off by a candidate who says he is personally opposed to abortion but will not do anything about it. I know I am confused by a candidate who says he personally feels one way but will legislate another way. How does the candidate feel about poverty, homelessness, and public education? Apparently we are not to consider how the candidate feels personally on these issues because he tells us he doesn't legislate accordingly. But that is poppycock. Voters want transparency in a candidate, consistency, and straightforward leadership. The way a politician feels and talks needs to be reflected in their actions, or voters won't know what to make of that candidate. And, in the end, enough people didn't know what to make of Kerry. Lots of people don't like Bush but no one is confused about where he stands on issues. No one is sorting out his personal beliefs from his public policies.
Last July, I had the opportunity to listen to Charlie Cook when I was working in Iowa. Cook is an eminent non-partisan political commentator. At the time, he said Kerry and Bush were even, each with about 45 percent of the vote locked up. That left 10 percent of the vote undecided. He noted that undecided voters typically do not vote for the incumbent. He, therefore, predicted Kerry would get most of those undecided votes and win the election. Well, as it turned out, the election was not about undecided voters. In fact, I really wonder whether there ever were very many undecided voters. Judging by all the yard signs, I doubt there were any in my neighborhood. In the end, it was all about who could get more of their supporters to the polls -- who could energize their base, as the politico like to say. Across the country, Bush supporters were excited about their candidate and got out and voted in droves. People who didn't like Bush got out and voted for Kerry, but apparently there weren't enough people who passionately supported Kerry. Bush had more people than Kerry who believed in him; ultimately, that made the difference.
tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.
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