“Suppose you are crossing a rude bridge over a stream in Equatorial Africa. You have been thinking of a hundred trifles and are in a reverie. From this you wake to discover that in the branches overhead a python is extending its fangs toward you. At the same time, you observe that at one end of the bridge is a crouching puma; at the other are two head-hunters–call them Pat and Mike–with poisoned blowpipes to their lips. Below, half hidden in the stream, is an alligator. What would you do in such a case, Mr. Mulliner?”
Cyril weighed the point.
“I should feel embarrassed,” he had to admit. ”I shouldn’t know where to look.”
Mulliner Nights (1933) by PG Wodehouse
The election leaves the seasoned Bush-basher in a similar predicament. He can’t say, “But we won the popular vote”. He can’t say, “But he had no coattails”. He can’t say, “He carried only the red states”. He can’t even say, “the primary season went on till almost the Convention, leaving little time…”
Nor is he used to remaining speechless.
Like the six blind men describing an elephant (how appropriate), everyone has a pet explanation for the November Surprise. ‘Bush didn’t win, Kerry Lost’, says Arianna Huffington. ‘It was the Diebold Machine, stupid’, is the verdict of Randi Rhodes of Air America Radio. Alexander Cockburn and Jeff St. Clair say it was the failure to address Middle America. Radio host Ed Schultz says there is not enough left-wing radio and tv. Others allow that Karl Rove was brilliant.
On one thing all are agreed — it was a stunning result. (All except my barber, who was not surprised at all — he had held the same view throughout the election season, which he expressed this way: “Kerry doesn’t stand a chance; you don’t know the Bible belt in this country — a Catholic against a Southern Baptist? You’ve got to be kidding.” To drive it home he would add, “He has as much chance as you of becoming President.” ).
The index of any practical politician or party is the ability to win elections. Elections are won at two levels: Political and practical. Successful politicians must tackle both. On the political level, there are only two ways to look at an election. One is going flat out to win (like Bill Clinton). And there is the longer-term view, when you know you can’t win, but would like to plant some seeds (like Nader in 2000 and 2004, and Goldwater in 1964). Let us examine the Kerry’s campaign in this light.
The Political Effort
The political level is a communication effort, via meetings, town-halls, debates, ads and the like. Here Kerry failed utterly, other than a mild shone-by-contrast performance in the debates. While accusing Bush of sticking to failed positions, he was demonstrating what the phrase meant by his own speech at the Grand Canyon, where he declared he would still have voted for the war even if he knew there were no WMD’s. The imbecilic James Rubin missed an excellent opportunity to remain silent when he told the Washington Post that a Kerry presidency would have also seen an Iraq attack. Till the end, no one understood Kerry’s 87 billion vote, although, reading between the lines, there is a reasonable case.
In short, Kerry did not communicate. If elections are about big ideas, Kerry advanced none. To the extent there was any campaign theme, it was that he would run a more efficient, smarter Bush administration. Why go for the imitation when the original was available? Bush had a broad theme — Terrorism is everywhere. You need protection. I will protect you. To cut the ground from under Bush, Kerry had only to raise one issue — why then did you fail us on 9-11? Instead, he kept giving the president a free pass on the greatest security failure.
If he had raised the tone of the debate, Kerry could have broken out of the dog-run in which the wolfs of Rove’s campaign commercial kept him penned. Instead, he remained busy answering Rove’s relentless barrage of when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife questions. The initiative was always with Bush. This despite the daily dose of unalloyed bad news revealing the worst about the administration and its decisions. In the end he neither gave silencing answers to Bush’s questions, nor took the offensive to ask Bush a few of his own. In the end he ran a supremely uninspired and uninspiring campaign. So was the political battle lost on both political levels.
The single best measure of the communication failure was captured by an exit poll displayed by Brian Williams of NBC: around 50% of the voters believed that Iraq was central to the war on terror.
The Practical Effort
The practical level, more important in the end, is the nuts and bolts of a campaign, such as challenging the delayed nomination of an opponent (I read somewhere that Bush’s filing papers were not in order in Florida, and the Kerry campaign never challenged it!), making sure the ballots were ok (doing so would have prevented Florida 2000), making sure the voting records were in order, so that your supporters are able to vote, ensuring a fair count, etc. Here the Democrats were hardly aggressive.
That is not entirely true. The Kerry camp did display great energy in this department: against that powerful demon, Ralph Nader. They spent 70 million dollars scuttling his efforts with an assiduity that would have been so much better devoted to keeping Bush off the ballot. Ed Schultz kept howling for months about the Diebold election machines with no paper trails. Democrats in Congress and other forums did nothing. Guess what, Florida and Ohio both used electronic machines with no paper records! I was struck by Karl Rove confidently predicting a day before the election that Bush would win both Florida and Ohio.
And yet, the belief was widespread (I listened in raw disbelief as Al Franken asked Mario Cuomo on election day morning whether — get this — now that Kerry was becoming president, he would accept a Supreme Court position!) and infectious that Bush was finished. Even the right was quite despondent that day; the exit polls were positive for Kerry. And this was reflected by the mood at the local campaign headquarters, where people calling Ohio and Florida to “Get out the Vote” were getting highly encouraging responses. Personally, from what I had seen of the Bush team, I thought it unlikely that they would leave willingly even if they lost. So what was the reason for this amorphous good feeling?
There are two reasons, one general and one specific. If a second marriage has been called a triumph of hope over experience, the ballot box is surely the nearest thing to the philosopher’s stone in modern times. An election has the effect of making even the most cynical of observers believe in visions. Even when every poll predicts the opposite, the partisan may yet retain hope. “Dewey defeats Truman” has become a metaphor.
Secondly this election wasn’t like the others. For if there ever were a set of circumstances more favorable to a challenger, it is not in memory. One need not torment the faithful with the familiar rote: the net loss of jobs, the lies of Iraq, the trade deficit, the budget deficit, and the debate fiascos, and the final ignominy of Osama giving a studio address on the eve of the elections. Instead of an October Surprise in Bush’s favor, each day brought nothing but more bad news for the administration.
In the final analysis, none of that counts. The Bible itself says, “There are none so blind as those who refuse to see”. Clearly, across vast parts of the country, all the failures of Bush and his crew do not matter. All the failure is offset by the fact that he opposes gay marriage, while Kerry equivocates.
The Democrats may yet have made some headway in the South and Midwest by highlighting the immorality of going to war against a country that did not attack us. They raised neither this nor any other moral issue, except for the ineffectual noise they made about the sanctity of gay marriage. Of all the much written about ‘undecided’s in this campaign, there were none more famous than Mr. Undecided himself, John Kerry, who could not chart a bold course. The decision he took was to ignore Clinton’s astute advice to distance himself from the anti-gay marriage amendments in 11 states. That decision consigned those states instantly to the Bush column. When they associated themselves with the pap that the gay marriage was on par with Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement in the fight against oppression, they alienated loads of sympathizers by seeming to have lost all sense of proportion.
Outside the Bible Belt, they needed competence (the word so favored of Sen. Kerry), to ensure a ‘level-playing field’, making sure ‘everyone votes, and every vote is counted’. This was not greatly in evidence. Watching their lack of alertness, and seeing their blithe belief that ‘turning out the vote’ would do the trick (against the masters of the Florida snatch?) I could only think of Trotsky’s words about the Constituent Assembly after the Russian Revolution (The Bolsheviks had stacked up guns, while the democrats came prepared for long debates): “Thus democracy entered upon the struggle with dictatorship heavily armed with sandwiches and candles”.
But in the end, do we really need to be told this by a campaign? A population weaned on notions such as tax cuts good, politics bad, conservative good, liberal bad, a degenerating civil service (elections in most countries are run by a civil services, not Diebolds and Sproulls — if you think the day is not far when the military will be outsource, recall that they have already outsourced manufacture of key missile parts to China). So perhaps, even with an ideal campaign, an institutionalized ignorance is hard to battle in one campaign season. There are none so blind as those who refuse to see, as the Bible says. And that’s 51% of the country — a majority, you see.
Maybe a unique combination of philosophical bankruptcy and street-level incompetence did the Democratic hope in. Not so unique, come to think of it. As it did in 2002. And in 2000. And in 1988. And in 1984. With each passing year, the electorate too is entering ever-advanced phases of political diabetes, with inevitable consequences. But experience is the best teacher, and in the end, people will realize that the only thing different between the first and third world’s lies in one thing only — the devotion to the public good.
Kerry conceded with even greater alacrity than Gore. He is said to have said to the President, “there is great division in the country, which must be healed”. Isn’t that a little like…complaining to Tony Soprano that there is great crime in the city? As John McEnroe famously said, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser”.
Much is being written about the evident discrepancies between the electronic machines and the exit polling. Others have written about huge numbers of people being struck off the rolls no good reason. Once again the Democrats showed no fight. It is good that the emptiness of this approach has been revealed, calling for a total house-cleaning. No political speech of the season was as good as Ralph Nader’s concession speech ending his bid. If Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich and others join Nader to start a fresh movement of political education, the situation could not be more fertile to face the confrontations that must inevitably occur during Bush’s next tenure.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. His writings can be found on http://www.indogram.com/gramsabha/articles. His blog is at http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.