Fear and loathing are so intense in this campaign, one almost expects the “blood-red moon” of the Apocalypse to rise over the Republic on election eve. Imagine John Ashcroft reading from the Book of Revelation as he pushes the terror alert to maximum. Democratic poll watchers might wisely be packing heat in Florida. Our pious President, who faces a near-death experience like his father’s, may be moved to pray aloud in public view, “Please, Lord, don’t do me like you did my daddy.”
The small joke is on both sides. They are locked tight in mortal fear for the outcome, yet the outcome is unlikely to be as decisive as life or death. The public is stressed out by the competing fears generated by both campaigns, but the content of that fear is more muddled than substantive, mainly a question of which man has the more odious character. This dizzy national trauma will conclude soon but may not easily pass, regardless of who wins. Like 2000, it might not even be over when it’s over. Everyone now understands that in the back room of electoral politics partisans dump ballots in the sewer or direct earnest citizens to the wrong polling place or, in extreme circumstances, ask the Supreme Court to brush aside recounts and issue a directed verdict.
When democracy turns ugly, it’s good to take a deep breath and remember that the Republic has survived a lot worse than this. If the polls are all wet and the final vote breaks sharply one way or the other, people will want to claim 2004 as a historic watershed. But I doubt it. This election does not feel like resolution, principally because neither candidate nor party was willing to state the choices with the full clarity of bedrock ideas. Bush did not campaign on the right-wing reform agenda he has pursued so aggressively in office. The President’s handlers well understand that a majority of the populace does not support it. John Kerry was equally shy, afraid even to say the words “right wing” lest it upset the addled undecided voters who do not like to make big choices. So this election opens an important new stage in the deepening conflict over political values and national direction, but probably doesn’t settle anything.
What can we say we have learned? We know now that Bush and the Republicans, because they were drenched in ideological certitudes, missed a historic opportunity during their first term to build a stable majority by moving away from extreme impulses and governing to the center. Four years ago, given the confused and inert Democrats, the opening was there and was what I expected (boy, was I wrong). Instead, Bush governed with brutal conviction, taking no prisoners despite his lack of any public mandate. Going to war for fanciful ideological objectives made the risk-taking even worse. If Bush loses (which I still kind of maybe think he will), he will go down for the same reason his father lost in 1992. He was indifferent to the common reality– the facts ordinary Americans perceived at home and abroad.