George W. Bush does not deserve a second term as president. His record of miscalculation, error, and deceit with regard to the invasion of Iraq alone should have been enough for voters to return him to Texas. For that to happen, however, Senator John Kerry had to convince the American electorate that he had a clear plan of action for dealing with the problems we face as a nation during a time of terrorism and economic uncertainty. Kerry failed to do that. In the end, Bush won the popular vote by 3.5 million, making a better showing in every region of the country than he did in 2000, including the so-called blue states. Bush may be inept or worse at governing at home and leading the community of nations abroad, but he remains an instinctively gifted salesman and politician.

Of course an incumbent president in time of “war” enjoys enormous advantages. Voters are hesitant to change leaders lest that send a signal of weakness to the enemy. And no one could accuse the president of not playing up such concerns. Much of his campaign against Kerry was simple fearmongering, especially when given voice in the soft-spoken belligerence of Dick Cheney. Still, despite the bitter and divisive nature of the campaign, voters came out in record numbers. One measure of how engaged Americans were in this election is the startling fact that even in defeat John Kerry garnered more votes for president than anyone in American history-except George W. Bush.

No one doubts that the nation remains deeply divided, politically and regionally, over President Bush’s leadership. Yet that fact did not hinder the Republican Party from increasing its majorities in both the House and the Senate. In light of these gains and his 51-48 percent margin of victory, the president has declared his reelection a mandate for implementing his conservative “agenda.” Bush promises to move forward quickly with proposals for further tax cuts and for the privatization of Social Security. He will pursue the war on terror wherever it leads, either with our allies or without them. If the administration’s disregard for the Geneva Conventions is any indication, that may mean further erosion of civil liberties at home and undermining of international law abroad. There is also every indication that the president will advance the goals of his most ardent religious supporters, placing more conservative judges on the federal bench, and if given the opportunity, nominating ideologically reliable justices to the Supreme Court. Whether Bush can place enough justices on the High Court to bring about a reversal of Roe v. Wade seems doubtful (although Roe’s demise would be nothing to mourn). Much more worrisome is the likelihood that Bush’s appointments will further solidify the present court’s assault on the power of the federal government over the states, resulting in the dismantling of sixty years of federal regulatory law touching on everything from the rights of minorities to workplace safety. In short, for those who have questioned both the rationale and the competency of this administration, the prospect of four more years of more of the same is sobering.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, exit polls suggested that Bush’s victory was driven primarily by churchgoers, and especially by evangelicals (some say Catholics as well) concerned about “moral values.” Referendums to ban same-sex marriage passed overwhelmingly in eleven states, and those results were seen as strongly tracking with Bush’s victory in places like Ohio. Questions have subsequently been raised about the reliability of such correlations and the wording of the exit polls themselves. Many observers have warned against jumping to hasty conclusions based on crude stereotypes of “religious” people who are allegedly driven by homophobia and other untutored passions.

Bush’s campaign certainly turned out evangelicals in record numbers, but it appears that the president’s conduct of the war on terror, not his veiled or surrogate-delivered messages about cultural values, remained the dominant issue for most voters. That seems the most likely explanation, for example, of why Bush won the Catholic vote, which he lost to Gore in 2000. If that is the case, it is reassuring at least in one respect. Only the most dedicated combatants want an intensification of the culture wars. What is not reassuring is the president’s success-despite the lack of any evidence, and the repudiation of every reason given, for going to war-in convincing the American people that the occupation of Iraq is the necessary epicenter of the larger war on terror. Sadly, Bush’s claim that our armed forces are fighting and dying in places like Falluja so that we will not have to fight the terrorists here at home must be considered a version of the politics of the Big Lie.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq is less likely to deter Muslim terrorism than to inflame it. No one doubts the U.S. military’s superior strength. Centers of Iraqi insurgency such as Falluja will fall to any concerted U.S. assault. But what then? And at what cost? It is a moral scandal that the administration has not made the slightest effort to determine the number of Iraqis who have died since March 2003. Recent estimates by the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, a reputable independent source, put the Iraqi dead at 100,000. That number may seem improbable, especially because Americans see so little of the carnage on TV. But what if it is true or close to the truth? Eleven thousand well-armed Americans have already been killed or wounded. Isn’t it likely that the death toll for Iraqis, who do not enjoy the sort of medical attention U.S. troops have, is exponentially higher? Is it this administration’s claim that we are winning the hearts and minds of Muslims across the Middle East with body counts like this? Is this how the democracy and freedom Bush likes to talk about are planted?

There is at least one measure of justice in Bush’s reelection. This president and his Republican Congress are now solely responsible for what happens in Iraq. If they succeed in bringing order and freedom out of the current chaos, they will deserve the credit. If they fail, they will deserve the blame. The same can be said for the president’s domestic economic program, especially the enormous federal budget deficits. If the president and his compliant Republican allies in Congress continue to cut taxes for the wealthy while spending freely on military outlays and other pet programs, the consequences for the larger economy promise to be dear. If they try to lower the deficit by reducing Social Security benefits or by curtailing already underfinanced social programs, the political consequences are likely to be equally severe. President Bush warns that we must stop at nothing to defeat the terrorists-and precisely nothing is what he has asked the American people to sacrifice in this supposedly life-and-death struggle. Neither the president’s math nor his moral reasoning adds up. Republicans were once known as the political party of fiscal discipline, limited government, personal moral responsibility, and a prudent and realistic foreign policy. It is a real question whether any of these values will survive a second Bush administration.

November 9, 2004

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Published in the 2004-11-19 issue: View Contents
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