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November 5, 2004 • Volume 13 Number 5

"...There seems to be a deeper trough between the two sides and more limited opportunities for reconciliation." - Kay Schlozman

An Election for the Ages

Faculty say focus on values key in mustering Republican votes

Election Day 2004 enthralled the Boston College community, faculty and students alike - as well as former mentors and friends of US Sen. John Kerry JD'76 [see related story]. On Wednesday, BC faculty reflected on President George W. Bush's hard-fought win over Kerry, and what may lie ahead in the second Bush term.

Moakley Professor of Political Science Kay Schlozman said the election returns seem to show "high levels of partisan voting and a continuation of patterns familiar from recent elections," Bush doing slightly better with "roughly the same kind of voters who supported him in 2000."

According to available data, Schlozman said, voters focused on terrorism, moral values, the economy and Iraq as major issues: Those who were most concerned with the first two tended to go for Bush; those citing the latter two went for Kerry.

"The divisions of opinion on all these matters are real," she said. "People differ on the extent to which we should curtail liberties in order to fight terrorism, in whether we should cut taxes to generate economic growth even if we increase the federal deficit, and so on.

"Yet, the shared interest in homeland security and economic prosperity provide the possibility for common ground. With respect to moral concerns, and the particular issues such as gay marriage and abortion that engage those concerns, there seems to be a deeper trough between the two sides and more limited opportunities for reconciliation."

But there may be both less and more to the US political divide than meets the eye, says O'Neill Professor of American Politics H. Shep Melnick, citing research that suggests attitudes of Republicans and Democrats are not as far apart on issues such as gay marriage as has been perceived.

"It is the political elites in each party who are more polarized than the public, and who feel more anger toward the other side, than do the voters," he said. "Of course, the voters do have to choose one of the parties, so it's easy to make the assumption that they share this enmity."

The post-election analysis has a long way to go, Melnick said, but it would appear the GOP did a far more effective job of mobilizing their base of support.

"Who knows exactly what 'moral values' means - perhaps it's strength of character - but they matter a great deal to the people whom those in the chattering classes seldom speak to.

"So while there was all the noise over Bruce Springsteen and the 'Rock the Vote' effort," he said, "the Republicans went about it a lot more quietly, and it worked."

Adj. Asst. Prof. Paul McNellis, SJ (Philosophy), said the Democratic Party is much too dismissive of issues that are important to families and the election results prove they will be heard.

"Parents are concerned about the difficulties of raising children in an increasingly toxic culture, and dismissive, condescending talk about NASCAR dads, security moms, and the 'religious right' just won't cut it any more," said Fr. McNellis. "These are citizens who have a right to be heard, and they don't want to 'outsource' social policy to unelected judges."

Faculty noted that, in the wake of a Massachusetts high-court ruling legalizing gay marriage in the Bay State, proposals banning same-sex marriage won in all 11 states where the issue appeared on the ballot this week.

"Democrats may need to rethink their basic strategy on moral issues - Chief Justice Marshall of Massachusetts may well have cost the Democrats the election," said Prof. Susan Shell, chairwoman of the Political Science Department.

Sounding a similar theme was Prof. Thomas Kohler (Law), who is active in the Institute for American Values, a think-tank devoted to issues of family and civil society.

"This should be a nail in the coffin of the argument that people always vote their pocketbooks," Kohler said. "This election is evidence they don't. For many people, the issues in this election were moral and religious - you can't separate the two."

Kohler suggested secular liberals in the elite media and the Democratic Party have fallen out of touch with the religious sensibilities of Middle America, and that many voters who may have disagreed with Bush on Iraq or other fronts nonetheless voted for the president because they perceived he shared their values where Kerry did not.

"The New York Times and other publications talk about the role of religion with a queasy feeling as to its role in public life," said Kohler. "I think for most people who take their religion seriously, religion is a set of claims about the nature of reality and how one is to live life - not a matter of taste, but life's central claim. Everyone has some sort of religion.

"The failure of some people to take that seriously - to regard religion as a sort of fundamentalism that is dangerous - means they don't understand an awful lot of people."

"It would help if both parties would stop speaking in code on some of these issues. Let's address them directly, as a mature democracy should be able to do." - Rev. Paul McNellis, SJ

Author and activist Prof. Charles Derber (Sociology) said the Democrats need to offer voters a clearer, and more left-leaning, choice.

"The Democrats now have an opportunity to differentiate themselves clearly from radical Republican policies in Iraq, on the deficit and other matters that will run smack into the constraints of the real world," Derber said. "They should no longer become collaborators on policies, like the war, that will prove ruinous to the country.

"Contrary to the idea that this is the time for bipartisanship, the reality is that we now live in a one-party state. Democrats can and will regain power only when they listen and respond to their own constituencies that represent the economic majority of all Americans."

Prof. Alan Wolfe (Political Science), director of the Boisi Center for the Study of Religion and American Public Life, says Bush's first term may prove to be the biggest obstacle in his second term. The cost in blood and money spent on Iraq, explains Wolfe, means Bush will not be able to expand his pre-emptive warfare strategy and attempt to bring pro-Western regimes into power in Iran and Syria.

Because the United States "no longer has the capacity to act as unilaterally as it did in the aftermath of Sept. 11," said Wolfe, the president "will be forced to rely on the United Nations and European allies to clean up the mess in Iraq - exactly the position of Senator Kerry."

On the domestic front, Wolfe continues, because Bush did not govern as a conservative in his first term - he supported education reform, advocated and signed a bill providing drug coverage for the elderly, and never vetoed a single piece of legislation no matter what its cost - he is likely to find it difficult to advance his "compassionate conservative" agenda, and may even wind up faced with the need to repudiate his own tax cuts to balance the budget.

The divisive 2004 campaign, combined with Bush's inability to form coalitions that include people who disagree with him, do not bode well for the prospect of cooperation and compromise between the White House and Democratic leadership, says Wolfe. This is unfortunate, because "America's best moments, such as the creation of the Atlantic Alliance and the domestic prosperity of the 1960s, took place under bipartisan leadership," he says, and "those moments are unlikely to be repeated anytime soon."

Melnick agrees with Wolfe that Bush may not have a clear road to success in his second term. "When you look at the history of the presidency, how many mistakes have been made at the outset of the second term? It almost always comes down to hubris, because the president figures he has nothing to lose. One would think Bush and his men would learn from history - but history teaches us that that seldom happens."

Prof. Dale Herbeck (Communication) had general praise for the media's performance on Election Day, and their efforts not to repeat mistakes from four years ago when many of their projections proved wrong.

"When there was any doubt the networks delayed. After the Florida fiasco in 2000, no one wanted to have to renounce another prediction. This caution was evident throughout the entire evening," he said.

But Herbeck agrees that Election Day did point up some serious flaws in exit polls, many of which seemed to indicate a wide margin of victory for Kerry. Regional differences within states and fluctuating turnout makes it very difficult to produce the representative sample required to accurately predict a tight state, he said.

"It has become clear that there is a problem with all forms of polling. Fewer Americans are willing to participate and it is increasingly difficult to produce a representative sample," said Herbeck.

Looking ahead, Fr. McNellis said the US needs a frank discussion of the important issues.

"It would help if both parties would stop speaking in code on some of these issues. Let's address them directly, as a mature democracy should be able to do," he said. "We are, as a country, extremely divided, and I've wondered for some time if we are becoming ungovernable. If some of these divisive issues had been handled politically rather than judicially, I wonder if we would have gotten a result easier to live with."

-Stephen Gawlik, Reid Oslin, Mark Sullivan and Sean Smith

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