Today I want to speak to every person who voted for my opponent. To make this nation stronger and better, I will need your support and I will work to earn it. I will do all I can do to deserve your trust. A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation.
-- President Bush,
in his victory speech
We are required now to work together for the good of our country. In the days ahead, we must find common cause, we must join in common effort, without remorse or recrimination, without anger or rancor. America is in need of unity and longing for a larger measure of compassion.
-- Sen. John F. Kerry,
in his concession speech
Are they, the reelected president and his defeated opponent, merely doing their compulsories? Or do they really think they can help Americans pull together across the lines that made this such a brutally divisive election?
I think they mean it. I doubt they can do it.
Oh, we will pull together to figure our way out of Iraq. But how to get out of Iraq was not a particularly divisive issue. John Kerry was at pains to argue that we wouldn't have been in such a mess there had he been president, but his prescription for getting out of the mess was only marginally different from President Bush's.
We may find a political compromise on Social Security or the environment or federal funding for early education. But again, these were not the issues that tore us apart.
Americans, as this election made clear, are riven over such compromise-resistant issues as abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage -- things that fit loosely under the heading of "values." And the side that won on those issues will hardly feel any imperative to compromise.
Look at it this way: Imagine that civil rights advocates had just won a close election against an advocate of massive resistance. Would it make sense for the victors to offer concessions? Wouldn't they take even a narrow victory as an opportunity to begin systemic change?
Why should it be different for the people -- particularly those we identify as the "religious right"? They won every contest where same-sex marriage was on the ballot. Will they hesitate -- should they hesitate, since they believe they are on God's side -- to press for the eradication of the remainder of an agenda they see as anti-marriage?
The president and his rival speak of compromise. But the people on the winning side may see opportunity.
And they are likely to see opportunity in terms far more concrete than would have been the case following a Kerry victory.
Black Americans, for example, would certainly have claimed a right to influence the agenda of a Kerry administration, given that Kerry couldn't have won without them. But it's equally true that he couldn't have won without women or Hispanics or gays or labor or any group identified with centrist or progressive politics. Their reward would be the presidency itself -- a government generally in sync with their philosophy and priorities. There would be no identifiably "black agenda" that Kerry would feel compelled to honor.
The "values" crowd clearly has the basis for claiming a vital role in the Bush victory -- apparently a huge number of those new voters that some of us thought indicated a groundswell for Kerry were instead driven to the polls (and Bush) by values. Having delivered the victory, won't they demand their medals?
The reward that interests them is not a government generally hospitable to their conservative views but the opportunity to complete the transformation of America into a tougher, less secular, Scripture-guided society with the guts to take the fight to the international terrorists. To the extent that the election was a contest between the political pragmatists and the believers, the believers won.
I can't say what the political and cultural outcome of that victory will be. But a smiley-faced "reaching out" and putting an end to "recrimination" and "rancor" are not what come first to mind.