As I begin this note, it is 10 minutes before 8PM on election night. On my computer a rotating Feedreader cube tells me that new posts await my reading and yet I will insulate myself from that information and from all outside information until I finish this little piece. Why? First, because pieces written in the wake of defeat are inevitably tinged with disappointment and bitterness, while pieces written in victory are just as strongly clouded by happy emotion. So for the moment, not knowing how the election will turn out, I can sit calmly and dispassionately and consider (in a state of complete sobriety) what might unfold during the next few hours. Certainly my lack of emotions will disappear, if only that...
Consider this a list of reasons that President Bush lost today's election. Even if he didn't lose, these reasons in my mind constitute major areas for concern that Bush, his advisers and his campaign did not address, and these point to weaknesses in the candidate, in the administration, and in the Republican Party.
The scene of the president on the deck of the aircraft carrier at the “end of major hostilities” against the regime of Saddam Hussein is in hindsight clearly perceived to be inappropriate. Since that moment over 900 American servicemen and women have returned from Iraq in body bags. Both the military and the president can be forgiven for having high spirits at that point in time. After all, the bitter Iraqi winter and a Stalingrad-like siege of Baghdad proved to be figments of the wobbly liberal imagination. No, the cardinal sin here was to set expectations far too high, and to thus allow our enemies to take advantage of those overly high expectations. In retrospect it was a mistake to speak to the country from that military setting. Rather, it would've been far better to speak to the country from the chamber of the House of Representatives and save the military talk for the carrier deck. It also would have been far wiser to more soberly prepare the nation for what was to come. Churchill understandably set expectations very low in the days leading to Dunkirk. In the days that followed the evacuation he continued to remind his countrymen that wars are not won by successful retreats. No one in the Bush Cabinet or in the White House staff was advising the president to keep his emotions and rhetoric in check. Someone should have been.
The high expectations after Iraq's military defeat were quickly brought low by the unconscionable scandal of the events that took place in that prison. In those events there is enough blame to allocate a generous portion to all responsible. Certainly the Secretary of Defense and the Attorney General bear significant responsibility in that they created an environment which allowed uncertainty to pervade the ranks of the military with regard to the limits in treatment of prisoners. Of course the military units involved are responsible as well, but to the Army's credit they had begun a complete investigation months before the story broke in the media. What was further inexcusable and also indicative of the problems within the administration, was the fact that the president was not aware of the situation until shortly before it became headline news. Again, someone should have told the president.
“Donkey Loyalty” is the delightful title of a chapter in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. The chapter describes the curious behavior of Irish-American civil servants in New York City who prized loyalty to clan above all other values. There are few families in the United States less Irish and more Wasp than the Bush family. When it comes to loyalty however they are as Irish as any political family – Kennedys included. Besides the uninterrupted tenure in office of Cabinet members Ashcroft and Rumsfeld, another manifestation of this obsession with loyalty is the presence on the 2004 ticket of Dick Cheney. While Cheney's service has been admirable his political value on the ticket has gone from being negligible in 2000 to a net liability in 2004. The president could have easily replaced Cheney on the ticket with any number of excellent candidates. These candidates would have made it easier to win the November election rather than more difficult. A candidate who could put the states of Ohio or Florida out of reach for the Democrats would be sufficient to assure victory. One obvious candidate is national security adviser Condi Rice. It is distressing to think what a huge positive contribution Rice could have made to the ticket. She is extremely bright and extremely articulate, and while he may be bright, the president has never been called articulate. Furthermore Rice and the president have an excellent working relationship. The inclusion of such a candidate on the ticket would not only balance the temperaments of the two candidates, it would be a historic moment for the Republican party to first advance the national candidacy of an African-American woman. Rice would draw tens of thousands of votes to the Republicans in states like Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Illinois, and New Jersey. Bush was foolish not to seize such a rare opportunity to do well by doing good.
The behavior of the mainstream media during the six months prior to the November election was highly partisan, biased, and completely disgraceful. So what else is new? The mainstream media was completely in the tank for candidate Clinton in 1992. The media was deeply antagonistic towards candidate Reagan both in 1980 and in 1984. Reagan had no bloggers to help his administration un-spin the media. Instead, he relied on his superb communication skills and his ability to use sound-bite-sized moments to get his message directly to the people in spite of a hostile media. Bush’s inability to express himself well verbally does not excuse this poor performance in propogating short messages through a hostile media.
Last but not least, we can blame the work of the candidate himself. In spite of his best efforts he did not build as comprehensive a coalition to fight the second Iraq war as his father had built to fight the first one. But his chief weaknesses in this area was that he did not effectively nurture the domestic consensus for war that was reached in the wake of the September 11th attacks. The will of our citizens to fight the war is the most important weapon we possess. It needs to be sharpened and maintained in a manner worthy of its importance.