Well, what to say? Two years ago, after some surprisingly disappointing election results I quipped something like, "Well, that could have gone better."
But somehow, that sort of irreverent, grim humor doesn't seem appropriate. This isn't just a disappointing election result. The consequences of what happened last night are too great.
Setting aside my general political leanings, my personal views and feelings of partisanship, I think the result portends very bad things for America's role in the world and the well-being on all levels of this country. Changes in domestic politics, in theory at least, can be shifted back at a following election. The world, though, is different. There we are just a ship -- though the largest one -- on waters we can never truly control. And I fear that this result will set in motion dangerous dynamics that even the relatively young among us will be wrestling with and contending with for the rest of our lives.
I've referred to this in the past, and hopefully will have a chance to return to it, but here's the essence of the matter, as I see it. Before today, the course that America had charted in the world over the last three years could be seen as the result of a traumatic event (9/11) and the choice of a president who was actually put in office by a minority of the electorate. This was a referendum on what's happened in the last three years. And it's been validated.
Let me run through a few other points rapidly.
The situation in Ohio. I gave myself the benefit of sleeping in a bit this morning. So I have not gotten my head around all the details of the provisional ballots and how many votes, in theory, remain. I can see that President Bush is trying to force the process and wring some de facto concession out of Sen. Kerry -- a typical Bush/Rove maneuver on many levels.
I don't want to see Kerry supporters (or the country as a whole for that matter) remain in an emotional limbo any longer than necessary. But for my part, I see no reason that Kerry should concede anything so long as uncounted votes remain outstanding that could conceivably decide the contest in his favor.
That's not something that means a lot to this president; I know that. But this whole contest has been too dirty, too marred with voter suppression, dirty tricks and other unspeakable antics not to press every last possibility. So, not that my views matter in this, but I would say do nothing premature. Make sure every last vote is counted. The fact that the president is "convinced" that he won, is not only meaningless but offensive. We have a system of rules for counting votes. That's how we decide.
(As I was writing this, word just went over the wires that Sen. Kerry called President Bush to concede the election. I don't second-guess the decision. They have a better handle on the numbers than anyone. And I'm sure they can see that they are simply not there.)
Finally, to Democrats and Kerry supporters.
Yesterday evening I heard various commentators say that Kerry's defeat would usher in a civil war among Democrats. Tucker Carlson said it would or should lead to a 'Goldwater moment' for the Democrats.
As I've noted above, I don't want to diminish the scope of what's happened. But a civil war over what exactly? Yes, some consultants will get a hard shake. And I'm certain there will be backbiting against Kerry (which I for one will very much disagree with.) But a civil war over what? The right and the left of the party were remarkably united in this cycle and managed to find points of compromise on key issues.
In some ways this would all be conceptually easier for Democrats to deal with if President Bush had managed a realignment of our politics in the post-9/11 world. But when I look at the results from last night what I see is that they are virtually identical to four years ago. Pretty much the same states going each way and a very close to even race -- though of course the president's 51% makes all the difference in the world.
As I said, if the Dems had been crushed, that would be one thing. If the American people were coalescing away from them, etc. But that's not what has happened here. In 2000 the country was divided into two (increasingly hostile) camps. And it's still exactly the same way. If anything it seems only more entrenched -- perhaps symbolically and geographically captured by the flip between New Hampshire and New Mexico from 2000.
The country is bitterly divided. And as much as anyone President Bush has divided it. But president Bush got 51% and if there's anything I've learned from watching him for the last four years-plus, it is that his team will take this as a popular mandate for an aggressive push for their agenda -- notwithstanding the profound division in the country or what has happened over the previous four years.
For the Democrats, what I fear most (and what I've privately worried about for months) is this: Energy cools after an election. That's inevitable. But organization and institutions can survive. And it is within institutions and organizational infrastructure that energy and power exist and persist.
Certainly it would have been more pleasant (and perhaps better) to nurture all the organization and infrastructure that has been built up over the last two years under a President Kerry. But my concern over the last few months has been that if Bush won, all of these groups and organizations and incipient infrastructure would simply be allowed to wither, as though it had been tried and found not to have worked.
That, as a factual judgment, I think is just plain wrong. And if that were allowed to happen it would truly be tragic. The truth is that what Democrats have begun to build over the last two years is tremendously important. It just wasn't enough, not yet.
I remember talking to Simon Rosenberg, the head of the New Dem Network, at the Democratic convention last summer. You'll remember, he and his group were profiled in the Times magazine around that time. The article, in brief, was about plans to create a Democratic-leaning counter-establishment along the lines of what Republicans did two generations ago -- with an alternative media, activist groups, organized political giving, in short a political infrastructure.
He told me he thought it would take ten years to accomplish. And I told him my one worry was that it could all be strangled in its crib if Kerry didn't win.
Well, here we are. And this is the test for people who care about this kind of politics and these sorts of values -- making sure that what has been started is not allowed to falter. This isn't 1964 or 1972 or 1980. This wans't a blow-out or a repudiation. It was close to a tie -- unfortunately, on the other guy's side. Let's not put our heads in the sand but let's also not get knocked of our game. Democrats need to think critically and seriously about why this didn't turn out 51% for Kerry or 55% for Kerry (and we'll get to those points in the future). But it would be a terrible mistake to stop thinking in terms of those ten years Simon described.
Take time to feel the desolation and disappointment. But I remain confident that time is not on the side of the kind of values and politics that President Bush represents. It took conservatives two decades to build up the institutional muscle they have today. Though I was always nervous about the result, I thought we could win this election. But it was always naive to believe that that sort of institutional heft could be put together in 24 or 36 months.
President Bush and the Republicans now control the entire national government, even more surely now than they have over the last four years. They do so on the basis of garnering the votes of 51% or 52% of the population. But they will use that power as though there were no opposition at all. That needs to be countered.
Leave today for disappointment. Tomorrow, think over which of these various groups and organizations you think has made the best start toward what I've described above, go to their website, and give money or volunteer. After that, okay sure, take a few more days for disappointment, maybe a few more weeks. But this takes time. And you shouldn't lose heart. The same division in the country remains, the same stalemate. The other side just got the the ball a yard or two into our side of the field rather than the reverse. And we have to deal with the serious consequences of that. Tomorrow's the day to start.