With George W. Bush achieving the popular-vote majority that eluded him in 2000, the tumultuous election of 2004 is now in the record books. And while most of the television networks, as we go to press, have not declared the president's electoral-college victory official, it's all over but the shouting.
But there should not be too much shouting about a Bush electoral mandate. Not now, not in a country as bitterly divided as ours is at this critical juncture. Election 2004 confirmed all of our worse suspicions, namely, that the polarization that began during the Clinton era has continued. The divisions worsened after Bush/Gore 2000, hardened with the invasion of Iraq, and are now etched in concrete. As NBC's Chris Matthews observed in the wee hours Wednesday morning: "This was not an election about issues, but one about the kind of country we want to be."
Much to the pundits' almost universal surprise, the exit polls demonstrated that the single issue voters most cared about in 2004 was not the war in Iraq, not the state of the economy, not even the specter of "terrorism," but something they labeled "moral values." In a nutshell: President Bush swept to victory on the strength of the perception that he was somehow more ethical, and more true to himself, than Senator Kerry. To 51 percent of the voters, the better "man" won.
However correct or absurd that notion may be, it is a stark political reality. Indeed, the hard mathematics that have ensured Bush's reelection may be the only reality this country can currently agree upon. Otherwise, we Americans dwell in two parallel universes.
Nor do these universes correspond neatly to the now-ubiquitous red-state/blue-state geography favored by the TV pundits. Here in Tennessee, for example, all four major newspapers in Nashville and Memphis (including this one) endorsed Senator Kerry, and while the president carried the state by 15 percentage points, Senator Kerry carried Tennessee's two most populous counties by 14 points.
The divisions in this country are not as simple as the colors on a map might suggest; we are divided by communities, not states. And unless we're prepared to indulge in our own version of ethnic cleansing, oversimplifying these divisions, as the national media is wont to do, does no one any good.
In his second term, President Bush must now do the right thing. With his campaigning days officially behind him, he needs to send Karl Rove into graceful retirement and turn his attention to the one problem that dwarfs even the Iraq quagmire in significance. This time around, Bush must become the once-promised "uniter not a divider." A continuation of the winner-take-all approach so evident in his first administration will make losers of us all.
Senator Kerry, on the other hand, should not be consigned to the dustbin of history. He ran a superb campaign -- he will go down in history, for example, as the first candidate to win the presidential debates and yet lose the election -- and can legitimately lay claim to the position as spokesperson for the 49 percent of Americans whose views will continue to need representation. Tom Daschle's defeat in South Dakota creates a natural opportunity for that "leader of the opposition" role to become official. We strongly suggest that the Democrats place John Kerry in the position of Senate minority leader.
But the loser in this race can only do so much. The burden is upon the president to reach across the partisan divide, to work with Senator Kerry and other Democrats to begin the healing process so essential for our future. Should he choose to do otherwise, George W. Bush runs the risk of presiding over "evening in America" and leaving as his legacy a truly dysfunctional nation.