Echoing Bush’s Line Won’t Help Democrats

Before crowing conservatives and depressed progressives ratify the conventional media descriptions of George W. Bush’s “resounding” victory and the “mandate” bestowed on him by voters, they should consider what Karl Rove admitted in a moment of post-election candor. Appearing on Fox News Sunday , the man nicknamed “Boy Wonder” by his boss was discussing a certain historical comparison when he blurted the truth.

Host Chris Wallace asked the President’s political director whether this year’s vote portends a new era of Republican dominance, like the fabled election of 1896 that Mr. Rove has cited as his model. “Does this election have the same potential to … give a governing majority to the Republican Party for decades?” the Fox host wondered.

Mr. Rove agreed that such potential exists, but added: “We’ll only tell with time. I mean, the victory in 1896 was similarly narrow, and I mean-not narrow, similarly structured. But it took-you know, we only knew that it was an election that realigned American politics years afterwards. And I think the same thing will be [true] here.”

Did he really call his career-capping triumph “narrow”? The transcript shows that he did, although he instantly corrected himself to better reflect the official spin.

As a professional politician of great skill and perspicacity, Mr. Rove doesn’t spin himself. Sunday morning’s momentary insight into his real thinking showed he is well aware of how thin the President’s margin was on Nov. 2 (even if all the votes were counted fairly).

The total electoral vote that kept Mr. Bush in the White House was scarcely more impressive than the one he achieved in 2000. He turned over a couple of closely contested “blue” states and lost one closely contested “red” state. Claims of a mandate rely upon his lead in the popular vote-a category his supporters didn’t think important four years ago-and on his party’s addition of seats in the House and the Senate.

The President won about 3.5 million more votes than his challenger, and as his supporters point out, set a new record for the most votes won by any Presidential candidate. He deserves congratulations, but then so does Senator John Kerry, who now holds second place on that same scale. As Joshua Micah Marshall notes, Mr. Bush’s impressive numbers represent an artifact of population growth and turnout, not an expression of overwhelming public approval. More Americans voted against Mr. Bush than any other Presidential candidate in the nation’s history, and his margin of victory was the smallest for any winner since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

What Mr. Rove indisputably achieved was to produce much larger numbers of conservative voters in states that the Republicans won four years ago. His efforts increased turnout in those states by more than 14 percent, or more than five million votes. Turnout in the blue states scarcely increased at all, according to nonpartisan analyst Charles Cook. The President also improved his performance in some blue states, and made progress among Latino voters as well.

But further perspective on the popular vote can be derived from another statistic. While the Republicans picked up four Senate seats, the total popular vote in the Senate races nationwide went to the Democrats by almost 3.4 million, or nearly the same as the President’s margin. The imbalance in the Senate reflects the Constitutional arrangement that favors small, rural states (as does the fact that those tax-hating red states gain far more in federal spending than they send to Washington in tax revenues).

As for the House, Republican gains resulted almost solely from gerrymandered redistricting in Texas. Absent that blatant cheating, which has provoked a criminal investigation in the Lone Star State, the G.O.P. would have lost seats.

The point is not that the Republicans didn’t win a significant and perhaps momentous victory. It is that they and their echoes in the political press grossly exaggerate when they talk about realignment and mandates.

Based on those exaggerations, some pundits now advise Democrats to cater to the religious right. Unless they can appeal to the citizens who cited vague “moral values” as the touchstone for their votes, those deep thinkers warn, the Democratic Party is destined for permanent minority status.

That is folly, simply because the Sun Belt fundamentalist bloc behind the Bush Presidency will never support a Democrat, no matter what platitudes he or she may mouth.

Democrats need to rediscover the kind of language and programs that will appeal to blue-collar voters in the red states, particularly in places like Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Ohio. They must remake the false image foisted on them by Republicans as immoral, Godless elitists. Most of all, they have to create the kind of ideological, communications and organizational infrastructure built by their opponents. That is the only way to thwart Mr. Rove’s plan to repeal the New Deal and return America to the reign of corporate plutocracy.