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E.J. Dionne Jr.

. . . He Didn't Get

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, November 5, 2004; Page A25

Don't mourn. Organize.

Okay, we can mourn a little first. The punch in the stomach that really got blue Americans singing the blues was George W. Bush's popular vote lead of more than 3.5 million.

Let's be honest: We are aghast at the success of a campaign based on vicious personal attacks, the exploitation of strong religious feelings and an effort to create the appearance of strong leadership that would do Hollywood proud. We are alarmed that so many of our fellow citizens could look the other way and not hold Bush accountable for utter incompetence in Iraq and for untruths spoken in defense of the war. We are amazed that a majority was not concerned about heaping a huge debt burden on our children just to give large tax breaks to the rich.

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And we are disgusted that an effort consciously designed to divide the country did exactly that -- and won. With all his failures, Bush could not count on a whole lot more than 51 percent. Karl Rove and company calculated perfectly, organized painstakingly, greatly increased conservative turnout and produced a country divided just their way.

The opposition should not crawl into a hole or be silent about these things. A decent respect for the outcome of an election never requires free citizens to cower before a temporarily dominant majority. There is, on the contrary, an obligation to stay engaged in a battle that, as John Edwards says, rages on.

Begin with the facts: A 51-48 percent victory is not a mandate. Even Democrats have talked about their party's being confined to an "enclave." Enclave? Blue America includes the entire Northeast, all of the West Coast but for Alaska and much of the upper Midwest.

If John Kerry had switched a point and a half in the popular vote and roughly 70,000 votes in Ohio, we'd be talking about the Republican "enclave." Rove's strategy has largely confined the GOP to the South and the Mountain West, rural America and the outer suburbs. Two nearly equal sides are engaged today, as they were on Tuesday, in a long-term struggle to make inroads into the other's patch.

As someone who has been arguing for years that liberals should show more respect for people of faith, I'm happy that more Democrats are now saying the same. But the post-election talk is much too facile. Most of the voters who cast ballots for Bush because of abortion, stem cell research or gay marriage won't suddenly switch sides because Democratic candidates pepper their speeches with prayers and a few more "God bless you's."

What's required is a sustained and intellectually serious effort by religious moderates and progressives to insist that social justice and inclusion are "moral values" and that war and peace are "life issues." As my wife and I prepared our three kids for school the day after the day after, we shared our outrage that we in Blue America are cast as opponents of "family values" simply because we don't buy the right wing's agenda. No political faction can be allowed to assert a monopoly on the family.

Bush will claim a "mandate" for a Social Security privatization plan whose costs he never discussed and for a "tax reform" proposal he never described. Radical efforts to destroy the achievements of progressive government should not be undertaken on the basis of a slim majority. The word "reform" should not be hijacked as a cover for whatever the president wants to do to favor the interests that support him. Democrats should never fear to negotiate, but history will damn those in their ranks who confuse negotiation with capitulation.

An administration given to hubris will have to be checked by institutions outside what is likely to be a compliant Congress. This is no time for the independent media to be intimidated by trumped-up charges of liberal bias. Moderate Republicans will have to find the courage to say publicly what many of them say privately about this administration's habit of overreach and the excesses of right-wing legislative leaders.

Kerry, in his poignant concession speech, said we should now be united. We are united against terrorists, in support of our troops and in the hope of a decent outcome in Iraq. But the burden for achieving national unity is on a president who could manage a narrow victory only by savagely trashing his opponent.

On Wednesday Bush told those who voted against him: "I will do all I can do to deserve your trust." Mr. President, I truly hope you realize how much work you have to do.

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