The moaning and groaning is neither helpful nor appropriate. There is every reason for concern, but none for despair. Beyond the fact that Senator John Kerry received more votes than any candidate for the presidency in American history — except, of course, George W. Bush — there is a mine of provocative data buried in the exit polls.
A few examples: When voters were asked whether they identified as “liberal,” “moderate” or “conservative,” in not a single state did a majority identify as “conservative.” Bush won 31 states; of these, “conservative” topped 40% in 12, but never reached 50%. True, “conservative” outscored “liberal” in 43 of the 50 — 51, actually, since the District of Columbia has three votes in the Electoral Colleges. But for all the alleged distaste for the “L word,” there were 23 states in which more than 20% of the voters identified themselves as “liberal,” and “liberal” actually outscored “conservative” in eight.
In the 14 states where Bush received at least 60% of the vote, the advantage of “conservative” over “liberal” averaged 25 points; in the states that Kerry won but in which “conservative” was more popular than “liberal,” the average difference was seven points.
And: Before we bow to the view that the country is run by white, evangelical, born-again Christians, note not only that this demographic makes up less than a quarter of the electorate, but that 21% of them voted for Kerry — in other words, they accounted for 18% of Bush voters. That’s a huge bloc, but it doesn’t account for even one out of five Bush voters. And, as the 21% who voted for Kerry show, they are not necessarily locked into support for the conservative candidate.
But the main issues that emerge from the election are less statistical than they are mystical. I have reference here to the storm of discussion regarding “values.” The exit polls asked people which issue was most important to them: taxes, education, Iraq, terrorism, economy/jobs, moral values or health care. Pollsters and pundits have been arguing ever since over the finding that 22% of the exit poll sample picked “moral values.” No other issue scored as high, although “economy/jobs” at 20% and “terrorism” at 19% came close.
There are those who argue that “moral values” is simply too vague a category, or too unlike the other choices, which all deal directly with policy. But whether the question belonged in the polls, the fact is that the Democratic Party, if it is to prevail, must make its argument in the moral language its argument deserves. It is not pandering to assert that poverty is a moral issue, and that war is a moral issue, and that the availability of health care is a moral issue. The Catholic church, which asserted that abortion trumps all other issues, must be challenged by its own language on “just war,” by its own abiding concern for the least among us. Evangelicals must be reminded that the teachings regarding poverty in their own scriptures are compelling.
This is not merely a matter of rhetoric; it is a matter of conviction. A real regard for social justice does not tell us which health care reform to endorse, or which to oppose — but it does demand that we not turn away from the problem, and that we not endorse the kind of fraudulent solutions, as in the new prescription drug benefits, that the Bush administration favors.
Which leads me to my final observation, at least for now: The notion of bipartisanship and national unity is mostly a hoax. The president has already said that he will work with those “who share my goals.” We have been down that path. It led the Congressional Democrats to sign on to No Child Left Behind, to the Medicare reform, to an array of presidentially inspired legislative initiatives that deserved to be vigorously opposed. The kind of compromise the president now seeks will compromise the Democrats and make them party to pernicious bills and appointments that will only perpetuate their impotence.
But what of being labeled “obstructionists?” The answer: A loyal opposition is not the same as an obstructionist minority. The task of an opposition is to oppose — and to propose alternatives. In the name of national unity, Democrats hastened to endorse and vote for the USA Patriot Act, riddled though it plainly was with excess, dangerous as it plainly was to our most valued liberties. There is simply no virtue in the idea of national unity for the sake of national unity. There is not a single issue where the goal of national unity trumps honesty, trumps candor, trumps, if you will, moral values.
We will all see fairly soon what the president has in mind when he tells us he is “reaching out.” The most obvious evidence will be in his nominees for the expected Supreme Court vacancies. But that is only the most obvious evidence. We can reasonably expect the Senate Democrats, if the president nominates people in the mold of his stated favorites, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, to fight that fight with ferocity. But they dare not expend all their energies in such headline battles.
The damage this president has already done — the deficit, the war — is great. That is, presumably, why 48% of the American people voted for his opponent. The elected representatives of that near-majority have every right to stand firm, to refuse to be complicit in the continuing assault on our values. Whether “we shall not be moved” I cannot say. But for sure we ought not be moved.
Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).