Getting Over It

Like many folks in New England, I woke up on Wednesday wishing that my region could secede from the union and become a province of Canada. But now it's time to get over it. The election was close. We didn't lose; John Kerry did. And now we have to figure out how to talk about our moral values -- in a way that will win next time.

Let's start by examining that 51 percent to 48 percent victory. That's no mandate. Stop looking at that bloody state-by-state electoral map, which deceptively makes it seem as if the vast American interior voted overwhelmingly against a few states on the margins. It's not so. Look instead at the maps that show voting by population density, or by county, or by electoral weight (all of which appeared in The New York Times' Thursday print editions). Then you can see how close the election was. The blue states contain almost as many people as the underpopulated interior. And the red states weren't as red as you might believe. Check out the big blue urban ink spots nearly (but not quite) blotting out the red rural counties in Ohio, or the blue lines that snake through Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia, or the blue counties hugging both coasts of the Mississippi River, or the pepperings of blue through the Southwest, including south Texas. This isn't a country that voted overwhelmingly against progressives. This is a country that (barely) concluded that George W. Bush was the safe default choice in a frightening time.

Why? In part because Kerry was a bad candidate -- and not a very progressive one. He wasn't against the war; he just wanted it run better. He offered up policies, plans, and catchphrases. He didn't offer up a vision. Remember his tedious convention speech? It had absolutely no moral center; it was an endless collection of policy details, linked together by the droning structural principle “and another thing.” My eighth-grade composition teacher would have flunked him. Where was the theme? Where were the topic sentences? Kerry ran as a Republican manqué, pounding his Purple Hearted chest, touting his love of guns, and proclaiming his distaste for gay marriage -- with the key difference that he could manage everything better than the other guy. Gosh, that's sure inspiring. When he said he was going to hunt the terrorists down and kill them, I felt ill. He sounded like a bad actor. The FOX News crowd openly mocked that statement, and who could blame them?

When Kerry backed his campaign bus over gay folks by endorsing state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, he showed an astonishing and fearful inability to talk about welcoming all Americans who “played by the rules,” as Bill Clinton used to. (Trust me, Americans disliked gay people much more back in 1992, but far from sacrificing us on the electoral altar, Clinton used his embrace of lesbians and gay men to showcase his vision of a big, fair, and inclusive society.) Like George Bush Senior in 1992, Kerry had no “vision thing.”

And yet Kerry still won almost half the vote. Almost half! Those aren't folks thrilled with my senator; those are folks who so flatly disapprove of what Bush is doing that they voted for an android. And they're still out there, waiting for us to do something about the country.

Now consider the proposition that people voted for Republicanism. Not so. They voted for Bush's sincerity and trustworthiness. I know, I know: That's hard to believe for those of us who read Paul Krugman with desperate avidity, who have watched Bush strangle one regulatory agency after another, who see in the deficit and the Iraq War the beginning of the end of the United States as a world power. But most folks aren't following the government's actions like box scores, the way we are. They're voting based on their idea of which candidate is a decent person, of who has a real sense of where the country should go. On TV, Bush looked and sounded as if he had a moral compass. Kerry did not. That mattered.

Here's the evidence: Bill Clinton would have won. We all know it. For all his faults, he could articulate an uplifting left-of-center (OK, left-of-Republican) vision. That man preached a vision of an America based on shared “moral values,” to use the phrase one-fifth of the electorate said it voted on. He spoke to American yearnings for fairness, hard work, equality, compassion, and inclusion, for a kind of security that's based on the preposition "among" rather than "against." He understood that “they” don't hate “us”; they are us. Clinton is street smart enough to grasp the best of what voters want, and book smart enough to articulate that in ringing sentences. Like Al Gore, Kerry offered something much thinner: ambition and intellect. Democrats can't afford to nominate such a person again.

So why can't Democrats consistently come up with inspiring leaders, with candidates who make you want to do the right thing, the way Republicans can? Well, maybe that's because we're leaving it up to the politicians themselves. A cynical approach (not that there's anything wrong with that) would be to mimic the Republicans and to start cultivating a good performer to run as the front man for progressive ideals. Until Barack Obama matures enough to run (he has the Clinton talent, but I can't picture him running for president in four years), I wish someone out there would draft Martin Sheen or Bruce Springsteen or Tom Hanks, or some other leftish Hollywood actor who could be as exciting as Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Pragmatically, that's not going to happen, not so long as Hillary Clinton is next in line for the slot. But the good news is that the junior New York senator has been brilliant at picking up and using the best phrases about progressive ideals. So here's another proposal: Progressives should figure out a better way to speak about our moral values. We can discuss policies and practices with one another all we want. We can look for some ruthless strategist who can parse counties and peel off voting blocs as brilliantly as Karl Rove. We can expect academics and activists to identify the spots of suffering that will shock our collective conscience. All that is necessary.

But none of that is enough. To win the next election, we also have to invent persuasive ways to talk about our vision of truth, justice, and the American way. We have to explain that, like any other game, capitalism needs impartial umpires who are willing and able to enforce its rules -- no cheating, no lying, no stealing -- lest it disintegrate into Russian crime. We have to explain that we don't all have to approve of one another's choices in order to treat one another fairly, simply because we're all human beings sharing the same planet. We have to explain that Social Security grows in part from Leviticus' mandate for each human being to share his or her overflow with the widows and orphans -- and in part from the fact that it's better to stick together and make joint choices about retirement rather than to force everyone to play the lottery alone, tossing out the ordinary and the unlucky to suffer in their old age.

Look at the success of Nickel and Dimed. Look at the massive Wal-Mart sex-discrimination lawsuit. People care about their paychecks, their families, and their neighbors. So do we. We just haven't been saying so very well.

So don't believe anyone who says our vision of the world was defeated. Let's figure out instead how to talk about what it is.

E.J. Graff, author of What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution, is a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center and a Prospect senior correspondent.