Four more years. Ugh! I thought of my daughters, ages 16 and 19, who participated in a War Resisters League "die-in" while the Republicans were in town and spent 48 hours in custody at the infamous Pier 57 and the Tombs. I thought of all the people I know who volunteered in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Hampshire. In the 12 (yes 12!) presidential elections I have experienced as an adult, I had never seen such passion, enthusiasm, and creative energy at the grassroots level. Convinced that the polls were not picking up this activity on the ground, I was cautiously optimistic that Kerry would win by a solid majority. Alas, it was not to be.
My feelings of disappointment lasted for about ten minutes. Campaigns develop a momentum of their own. After the first debate, when Kerry finally began to take Bush to task for his Iraq follies, I began wearing my Kerry-Edwards button proudly alongside the anti-Bush button I'd been wearing for months. But on November 3 it didn't take me long to remember what I had pushed to the back of my mind in the heat of the campaign: that although I passionately wanted Bush fired—for lying, for incompetence, and for misleading the country into an unjust and unnecessary war—I also had grave concerns about a Kerry presidency.
A dear friend of mine is close to John Kerry. She confirms what I saw in the debates: he is a thoughtful, decent man who would never have led the country into the tragic, foolhardy venture which is the war in Iraq. But Kerry calculated—rightly, I think—that he had no chance of being elected unless he promised to "win" the war in Iraq. I was not looking forward to watching a Democratic president with a slim majority spend the next four years trying to "win" an unwinnable war—while getting blamed on all sides for his death-strewn failure to do so.
Perhaps I've never recovered from my vote for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Barry Goldwater was saying he'd bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age if necessary. Johnson was the "peace candidate." On February 13, less than four months after the election, Johnson made the fateful decision to order Operation Rolling Thunder, the continuous bombing of North Vietnam, a major turning point in the tragic escalation of the war. I felt betrayed, and have never forgiven Johnson.
Would John Kerry, following in Johnson's footsteps, have felt the need to protect his right flank by proving that he was as macho as the next guy? A man trying to prove he's tough can sometimes turn out to be just as dangerous as the real thing. That was my fear. And although I wanted Bush fired, I feel some satisfaction that the President now has to deal with the mess he has made in Iraq rather than turning it over to the Democrats.
John Kerry was not a perfect candidate (who is?). He made some mistakes (who doesn't?). But he ran about the best campaign he could under the circumstances. We need to change those circumstances. Steadily, one step at a time, since the end of the sixties, the right has worked systematically and effectively to narrow the spectrum of politically acceptable discourse to the point where our choices are between right and right-center. In that context, whether we win or lose, we still lose. With issues framed in such a way, a candidate has little wiggle room even for telling the truth, let alone for proposing alternative strategies, especially when it comes to matters of war and peace.
We can begin to turn this around. Having lost the election while gaining support from nearly half the electorate, the Democrats have the responsibility to lead a "loyal" opposition. To be worthy of our continued support, our representatives in Congress must question, investigate, and critique the Bush administration's activities while fostering a true national debate about the U.S. role in the world in general and Iraq in particular. During the campaign, John Kerry showed glimmers of the ability to do this effectively. I hope he does not slink off in defeat as Al Gore did four years ago, or blindly support the President, as his gracious-to-a-fault "we must stand together and succeed in Iraq" concession speech unfortunately implied.
That's what Kerry and the Democrats owe their supporters. But we are unlikely to get what we deserve from this lot of Democratic politicians unless we hold their feet to the fire—and that means building a broad-based peace movement.
It'll be easier to build a movement with Bush as president than it would have been with Kerry as president, for most (but not all) of the potential support for a movement comes from people who vote Democratic and might have felt conflicted about protesting Kerry's efforts to "succeed" in Iraq.
But it will not be easy. We will have to contend with public officials who violate our constitutional rights to protest, as Mayor Bloomberg did so disgracefully during the Republican National Convention. We will have to deal with feelings of despair and frustration in our own ranks, as Bush moves forward to fulfill the false "mandate" the media have allowed him to claim.
And our greatest challenge will be to "think anew and act anew" in order to reach out to the 70 percent of Bush supporters, who, according to a study released by the University of Maryland shortly before the election, still believe that Iraq possessed or was building weapons of mass destruction and provided substantial support to Al Qaeda.
For starters, we need to find ways to persuade these voters, including the many upstanding churchgoing people who voted for Bush, that lying is a character flaw, and that 1,100 dead American soldiers and 100,000 or more dead Iraqi civilians in an unnecessary war is a moral issue.
Tom Roderick is Executive Director of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility (formerly ESR Metro). This article appeared in the Nov.-Dec. 2004 issue of ESR Metro's newsletter, Action News. Tom welcomes email responses to this article at: firstname.lastname@example.org