Originally Published 2004-11-10 04:34:16 Published on Nov 10, 2004
The current conventional wisdom now being voiced among American analysts is that the 2004 election is evidence of a conservative revolution in American politics. According to this view, the U.S. is now in the midst of a long-term shift to the right and the creation of an enduring Republican majority, akin to the Democratic majority coalition forged during the 1930s and the New Deal by Franklin Roosevelt.
Reading the U.S. Elections
<strong>U.S. Elections: Conservative revolution? <br /> <br /> </strong> The current conventional wisdom now being voiced among American analysts is that the 2004 election is evidence of a conservative revolution in American politics. According to this view, the U.S. is now in the midst of a long-term shift to the right and the creation of an enduring Republican majority, akin to the Democratic majority coalition forged during the 1930s and the New Deal by Franklin Roosevelt. <br /> <br /> Those who tend towards this view have focused on the answer given in the television networks' exit poll of voters to a question asking what was the most important issue in the election. Of the seven possible answers given, the largest percentage - 22 percent - chose "moral values." <br /> <br /> Along with this polling data, analysts have been trumpeting the success of Republican strategist Karl Rove in organizing a focused higher turnout of rural and suburban voters in key states such as Ohio and Florida. Those voters were largely white and members of Christian evangelical churches and were said to be more motivated more by issues such as gay marriage and abortion - broadly referred to as moral issues - than by the war in Iraq. <br /> <br /> On both the broad trend and the analysis of the 2004 vote, there are reasons, however, to question the conventional wisdom.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Let's start with the conservative revolution. There is little question that we have seen a gradual movement to the right in American politics, as defined by the reduction of the previous clear majority in party registration for the Democrats and the loss of Democratic control over the Congress and over many state legislatures and governorships. <br /> <br /> But there are reasons to question whether there has been a dramatic change in American public opinion over this period of time. Those who identify as being liberals or moderates (as opposed to conservative) made up two-thirds of the voters, according to the 2004 exit polls. This is pretty constant with previous elections, although there is movement from liberal identification toward moderate. <br /> <br /> Nor is Republican success on the presidential level a new phenomenon. Since the 1952 election, the GOP has controlled the White House for 32 years - and will do so now for another 4 years. <br /> <br /> The GOP success on both the Presidential level and in ending the Democratic majority in Congress may have more to do with another factor that is not much discussed these days in American politics - race. <br /> <br /> The GOP gains over the last few decades can be attributed to the triumph of its long-standing Southern Strategy. The Republicans have used subtle appeals to racial prejudice, combined with conservative social values and patriotism, to break off a crucial part of the Democratic party's New Deal coalition - Southern whites. This has also allowed the GOP to shift its image from being a party of big business to a champion of the middle class. <br /> <br /> The Democratic party majority was the product of an uneasy alliance of Northern urban voters, many of them unionized workers, minorities (mostly Blacks and Jews), and Southerners. The latter were traditionally Democrats going back to the days of the Civil War and Reconstruction, when Democrats were seen as defenders of the South against the North. In fact, black voters were traditionally Republican voters - the GOP being the party of Abraham Lincoln - until the New Deal and the migration of many blacks to Northern cities shifted their allegiance. Democratic control of the Congress rested on control of almost all the Southern House and Senate seats. <br /> <br /> White Southern unease with the Democrats was already visible by 1948 with the rise of the Dixiecrats. The GOP inroads into the Democratic base in the South accelerated when Lyndon Johnson made the fateful decision to put his weight behind the Voter Rights Act of 1964, a groundbreaking piece of civil rights legislation to ensure the voting rights of Southern blacks. George Wallace's revolt against the Democratic party was the next signal that Southern whites were being lost. Richard Nixon made this into a centerpiece of the GOP game plan when he crafted the Southern Strategy to permanently capture of that vote. <br /> <br /> That strategy has now largely played itself out. The states of the former Confederacy now form an almost automatic electoral starting point for any Republican presidential candidate. In the 11 states of the old Confederacy, Bush won 56.9 percent of the vote, compared to 42.4 percent for Kerry. In the 39 other states outside the south, Kerry won a slim majority, 50.4 percent, versus 48.6 percent for Bush. Observers note that the only two Democrats elected to the White House since the 1960s have been Southern Whites - Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton - who were able to crack that control. In the 11 states of the old Confederacy <br /> <br /> The majority of House and Senate seats in the South are now solidly in Republican hands due to the white vote, giving the GOP what the Democrats once had - control of the Congress. In the 2004 election, the GOP gained 4 Senate seats in the South previously head by Democrats and picked up new seats in the House from Texas and other Southern states. <br /> <br /> The combination of the South, the border states and the interior West (long a GOP stronghold, based on its support for rural agricultural and mining interests) has created a formidable Republican base that Democrats have increasing difficulty in penetrating. These are areas of the country that are gaining in population as well. That suggests that a Democratic comeback will have to come from cracking that GOP base - probably not in the South but more likely in the Southwest and West (Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada) where Hiic voters are growing in number and where conservatives tend to be libertarian rather than social conservatives. <br /> <br /> <strong>The Moral Values factor</strong> <br /> <br /> The 2004 election has already yielded a great political myth - that the election was won by, as one long time political commentator put it satirically, "a stealth army of evangelical voters, organized below the media radar screen that pulled a surprise attack on Election Day.'' The architect of this supposed triumph is Karl Rove, the president's top political advisor, who targeted such voters and got them to the polls. <br /> <br /> One prime piece of evidence of this strategy's success is the exit poll number, now cited ad nauseam in the American media, showing that moral values was the top issue among voters. <br /> <br /> It is certainly true that among a minority of voters, issues such as gay marriage mobilized them to the polls. It is also true that those who consider themselves to be religious and who attend church on a regular basis voted by a large majority for Bush. <br /> <br /> But the evidence from the exit polls is more complicated than that one oft-cited number suggests. Most voters favored abortion rights, about the same percentage as in 2000. Some 60 percent support some for of legal recognition of same-sex relationships. Bush's backing went up about equally among both churchgoers and non-churchgoers compared to 2000. <br /> <br /> Rather than religion and morality, the 2004 election was about leadership at a time of war. The dominant issue in this election was the war in Iraq and the war on terror - together those two issues were named as the most important issue by 34% of the voters. Fearful and angry, Americans were inclined to be reluctant to change leaders in midst of conflict. And historically the American people have never thrown out an incumbent president during wartime, even when he was unpopular - Lincoln and Roosevelt are good examples of that. <br /> <br /> Despite the difficulties in Iraq, a narrow majority of the American people agreed with the President on two crucial things - that the war was necessary and that it was a part of the broader war on terror. Exit polls showed 52 percent approved the decision to go to war, even though the same percentage thought the war was going badly. A slightly larger percentage - 55 percent - believed the war was part of the war on terrorism. <br /> <br /> Those two groups of voters - those who favored the war and thought it was part of the war on terror - voted by a large margin, over 80 percent, in favor of Bush. <br /> <br /> More crucially, Bush was able to successfully present himself as a strong leader with unwavering views. At the same time, he painted his opponent, John Kerry, as weak and indecisive, someone who could not be trusted to lead the country at a time of war. <br /> <br /> The polling numbers again back this up. About one third of the electorate identified strong leadership and taking clear stands on issues as the most important quality for a president. Of those voters, more than 80 percent voted for Bush. When voters were asked if they trusted Kerry to handle terrorism, only 40 percent said yes, compared to 58 percent who trusted Bush. <br /> <br /> Rove deserves some credit for discrediting Kerry as a leader - helped along by the Democratic nominee's own errors. From the moment that it became clear that Kerry was going to win the nomination, the Republicans launched a remarkably effective and disciplined attack campaign of television advertising and public statements. The campaign depicted Kerry as a "flip flopper,'' a politician who shifted his views to what is popular and lacked the clear and consistent values of President Bush. By the end of the summer, that image was deeply embedded in the public mind, as shown in polling. <br /> <br /> Kerry provided the Republican campaign with its most vital ammunition in the form of his vote to authorize the Iraq war and a subsequent vote against the supplemental funding for that war. His convoluted explanation, voiced at a campaign appearance, that he had voted for the funding legislation before he voted against it became a staple of Republican ads almost immediately. It was, as Republican strategists put it, the gift that kept on giving.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Kerry attempted to counter the Republicans by selling his life story - a very compelling tale of a man who, unlike Bush, volunteered to fight in the Vietnam war and performed with great personal courage in that war. This was a story that Democratic strategists thought would allow them to sell Kerry as a wartime leader and counter the President's natural advantage on that crucial issue. <br /> <br /> The Kerry effort was briefly successful. But it did not survive a relentless assault, apparently closely coordinated with Rove and the Republican campaign, on Kerry's wartime record. The polling lead for Kerry built up out of the late July Democratic convention was wiped out in August by an insidious campaign carried about by a group of Vietnam veterans led by a long-time foe of Kerry. The so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth put out a tale - later shown to be largely untrue - of Kerry as a coward who claimed medals he didn't deserve, and who betrayed his comrades by later opposing the war. <br /> <br /> Kerry recovered some ground in the two months that followed but he never shook the doubts created about his personal leadership. <br /> <br /> "I think it was a triumph of persona over policy,'' said Senator Bob Graham, a longtime Florida Democrat who just stepped down from his seat in a failed attempt to gain the presidential nomination. "People just felt more comfortable with President Bush than they did with Senator Kerry. President Bush was able to convey a sense of strength, leadership and purposefulness as it relates to the war on terror, and the war in Iraq.'' <br /> <br /> <strong>What next in a Bush second term presidency?</strong> <br /> <br /> The President and Vice President Dick Cheney have made clear from their opening post-election statements that they consider the vote to be a strong mandate for them to pursue their policies across a broad spectrum of issues. In addition to narrowly but clearly winning the presidential popular vote and electoral college vote, the Republicans gained seats in the Senate and the House. <br /> <br /> Leaving aside the issues of domestic policy that are likely to occupy a great deal of attention - nominees for the Supreme Court, Social Security, and taxes - what does this mean for foreign policy? <br /> <br /> Two views are current among analysts regarding the direction of foreign and national security policy in the second term. One is that Bush, freed from the pressures of seeking re-election, will feel less need to cater to his more conservative base and will shift toward a more centrist approach. <br /> <br /> This view resembles that of analysts who believed that Bush, upon election in 2000, would rule largely in the manner of his father, who hailed from the realist, internationalist wing of the Republican party. The assumption then was that the disputed nature of his victory in 2000 would force Bush to rule as a moderate in order to gain legitimacy. Bush defied those expectations almost completely. <br /> <br /> The other view is that a second term Bush administration will move even more strongly, with less hesitation, in the direction taken during the first term. In this view, Bush and Cheney read the election result as a validation of the national security strategy laid out in 2002 and pursued in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the actions taken against al Qaida. The President made it clear in his first post-election press conference that he intends to pursue the broad aim, a centerpiece of his election campaign, to transform the Middle East. <br /> <br /> The administration faces a number of immediate issues on which action was delayed in order not to adversely affect the re-election effort. How the administration moves on those issues - as well as the key appointments made during the normal second-term shakeup - will tell a lot about which view is ultimately correct. <br /> <br /> The first issue on the agenda is the conduct of the war in Iraq, followed by the proliferation challenges from Iran and North Korea. In summary, here is where these issues now stand: <br /> <br /> <strong>Iraq</strong> - The Bush administration postponed the assault on Fallujah and the Sunni insurgent strongholds until after the election for fear of the casualties that might result. As I write, that assault has now begun. American attention has been overly focused however on the military nature of this battle - given the overwhelming firepower advantage it is safe to assume that US forces will gain nominal control of the city shortly. <br /> <br /> The assault is part of a political campaign to try to strengthen the hand of Iyad Allawi ahead of the planned elections and to ensure that voting will be held sufficiently in Sunni regions to give that vote legitimacy. Behind the scenes, US authorities have sought to create an electoral list that would ally key elements of the former governing council with Allawi, who has very little direct support. <br /> <br /> If the Fallujah assault goes badly it will obviously undermine that effort, as well as further inflame Sunni hostility and strengthen those calling for a boycott of the election. <br /> More importantly, it may provide even more support to the efforts of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to forge an election list that unites all the Shiite parties and groups in a bid to gain control of the Iraqi government. <br /> <br /> It is not clear that the Bush administration really understands the depth of anti-American feeling in Iraq and the dangers of a Shiite takeover, particularly one likely to have close ties to Iran. If things go badly in this regard in Iraq, it is likely to shape many of the other choices of the second term. <br /> <br /> <strong>Iran</strong> - the Bush administration has been divided over the response to the Iranian nuclear program. Hardliners in the administration such as Assistant Secretary of State John Bolton, the spokesman on non-proliferation policy and a close ally of Cheney, have been pushing to take this issue immediately to the UN Security Council. That would likely leave the US isolated and possibly set the stage for a unilateral use of force against Iran. <br /> <br /> There is growing talk in Washington policy circles, reflecting views inside the administration, about the possibility of a surgical air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities should the UN fail to adopt sanctions. It is far from clear the President will favor such a course - he has told the IAEA and others he believes there can only be a diplomatic solution. But pressure may mount on this front. <br /> <br /> However, the EU-e talks with Iran seem to have reached a tentative agreement and there is a basis to hope that this will head off a confrontation over this issue when the IAEA meets on Nov 25th. There are indications that Secretary of State Colin Powell may be ready, on that basis, to directly talk to his Iranian counterpart at an upcoming conference in Egypt on aid for Iraq. <br /> <br /> <strong>North Korea</strong> - there are hopes of resuming the 6-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program. That has been held up by North Korea and if they are ready to resume, the administration will gladly do so. But talks are not likely to move forward unless North Korea is ready to make dramatic concessions or the Bush administration signals a readiness to talk more directly to the North Korean leadership.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The outcome of the Iran process could have significant impact on North Korea. If there is movement toward a diplomatic solution, based on a trade of economic and other concessions for indefinite end to the Iranian fuel cycle program, it might encourage a similar deal with North Korea. But if those talks collapse and the use of force moves to the forefront, it may encourage the North Koreans to move even faster toward a declared nuclear status. In this case, the use of force is much more difficult to contemplate. <br /> <br /> <strong>Global economic policy</strong> <br /> <br /> The state of the global economy, which did not receive much attention during the election campaign, is likely to become a key issue. <br /> <br /> Indian worries regarding outsourcing legislation and the impact of a possible Kerry victory were always overdrawn. But to the extent that such concerns were real, Indians can be assured that such legislation will not be passed. <br /> <br /> That does not mean, however, that protectionist sentiments in the United States may not gain strength in the coming months and years. The rapid expansion of the US trade and current account deficit and the downward pressure on the value of the dollar is attracting growing attention. There is some increasing worry that surplus nations such as China and Japan will shift assets away from the dollar and dollar-denominated debt. If this puts upward pressure on US interest rates, those deficits could again become a real political issue. <br /> <br /> The Bush administration showed during its first term that it can be very pragmatic about playing to trade protectionist sentiments for political gain, as it did with steel and some China-related issues. This is more likely to come up regarding China than India. But there could be a broad impact. <br /> <br /> <strong>India and Pakistan</strong> <br /> <br /> Finally, there is no reason to anticipate any change in the Bush administration's policies towards India and Pakistan in the coming period. The desire to strengthen partnership with India remains a key plank of the administration's policy, as does their belief that the Musharraf government represents the best option for stability in Pakistan.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Daniel Sneider, who wrote specially for orfonline, is a Columnist for San Jose Mercury News, California. He was the National/Foreign Editor of the News, responsible for coverage of national and international news for more than four years until April 2003. <br /> <br /> <em>* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.</em>
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