Election 2004 was a complicated mosaic of symbols and substance that will shape the governing landscape in America in many ways over the next several years. Some of the results were purely symbolic, while others will have real impact on the president’s governing strategy (assuming the Ohio results hold) in a second-term agenda. But whether symbolic or substantive, last Tuesday’s reverberations will be felt immediately and have long-term implications.
First, when the tally dust settles, President Bush will have captured the popular vote by over 3.5 million and be the first presidential candidate in the United States to receive over 50 percent since his father beat Michael Dukakis in 1988. Given all the acrimony generated by Democrats since the 2000 election, when Al Gore won the popular vote by less than a half-million, but lost in the Electoral College, running up a several-million-vote victory and being able to say that a “majority” of Americans supported him (and gave him more “raw votes” than any president in history.) Mr. Bush removes the Democrats’ — albeit bogus — charge that he is an accidental president. Given these numbers, the White House can legitimately claim that an undisputed majority of Americans supported the president’s reelection and move forward with a bold second-term agenda with a huge symbolic boost.
Second, despite the alleged prowess of Democrat 527s like America Coming Together, Republicans held their own and even out-organized the Democratic front groups with their own army of committed volunteers. GOP victories in the ground game were key to winning states like Florida and (most likely) Ohio, and were central to putting together Mr. Bush’s Electoral College victory.
The possible impact of Democratic 527s on the election was looming large on the minds of many pundits and partisan strategists on Tuesday. Would these organizations mobilize millions of new anti-Bush voters or were their activities more hype than substance? Analyzing the precise impact of these organizations on Democratic voters will have to wait for another day. No doubt they had some impact.
Yet in many ways they represented a form of “outsourced opposition” more than heartfelt Kerry support. And in many ways they produced fewer supporters — people with less zeal than many anticipated. In many areas of the country these 527 organizations paid workers to register voters and simply lacked the passion and commitment possessed by the Republican “all-volunteer Army.”
Finally, the president brought political coattails back into fashion, particularly in the Senate, where the Republican Party should now hold a 55 to 45 advantage (up from 51-49). Republicans marched through the South in Sherman-like fashion, capturing seats in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Louisiana, and apparently Florida — all previously held by Democrats. From a symbolic perspective, the 2004 Senate results nearly complete a three-decade-long realignment in the South. For example, when Lyndon Johnson was Majority Leader in the 1950s, the 11 Southern states that made up the Confederacy were all represented by Democratic senators. In January 2005 those 22 Democrats will dwindle to 4, and Republicans will hold 18 of the 22 Senate seats in the South.
The president’s coattails also were long enough to make another piece of history — the defeat of Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota. This is the first time since 1952 that a seated Democratic leader was defeated (Barry Goldwater beat Senate Democratic Leader Ernest McFarland of Arizona). Most expect the Democrats to replace Mr. Daschle with Nevada Sen. Harry Reid.
But before Republicans pop too many champagne corks, they should moderate their enthusiasm about achieving easy legislative victories in the upper body — the Senate is not the House. A determined and unified minority of 45 Democratic Senators could easily block a host of legislative initiatives and judicial nominations next year. Moreover, because Democratic senators are now concentrated in more liberal “blue” states, the minority has both the procedural means and the political motive to block Republican initiatives.
Tuesday’s symbolic and substantive victories provide a solid foundation for the president to begin implementing his second-term agenda. But a hostile media, angry liberal interest groups and a more ideologically unified Senate minority present a host of thorny challenges for the GOP in moving forward.