Why was this presidential election so negative? Because each candidate's best argument was to point to the other candidate.
Rarely does a president spend so much of his own time attacking and ridiculing a mere challenger, but President Bush realized early on that he couldn't win reelection on the basis of his own record.
From the Iowa caucuses to the Democratic National Convention to Election Day, it's clear that the real passion among Democrats was to defeat Bush, not to elect John Kerry. In the end, "not Kerry" edged out "not Bush." Were it not for the relative unattractiveness of Kerry and his old-fashioned liberal agenda, Bush would have lost.
President Bush and Karl Rove's strategy almost backfired. Especially this year, they decided to take libertarian voters for granted and go all-out for social conservatives. Unconcerned about supporters of small government, Bush spent taxpayers' money faster than any president since Lyndon Johnson. He didn't veto a single bill in four years (the last president with that record was John Quincy Adams, the last son of a president to serve one term and then be defeated.) He federalized education, expanded the welfare state, increased farm subsidies, restricted civil liberties and signed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance regulation bill that he knew was unconstitutional.
Many libertarian voters were just as concerned about what they saw as an unnecessary and imprudent invasion of Iraq, which led to the kind of futile and hubristic nation-building that candidate George W. Bush rejected in 2000.
Meanwhile, he wooed social conservatives with his "faith-based initiative" (federal subsidies for religious groups), federal marriage counseling and support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Instead of making government smaller, he has sought to use its money and power on behalf of conservative values.
His aides boldly spelled out Bush's new big-government conservatism. Chief of Staff Andrew Card said that "this president sees America as we think about a 10-year-old child," in need of Bush's firm parental protection. Communications guru Karen Hughes told the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," "This is not the grinchy old 'Let's abolish the Department of Education' or 'Shut down the government' conservatism of the past."
Ronald Reagan won two landslide elections on a limited-government platform. Bush has twice squeaked through with his big-government conservatism.
Social conservatives are better organized than libertarian voters. They have evangelical churches, the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family constantly advocating their views with Republican strategists. Hence, Rove and Bush's decision to play to that base.
Limited-government voters are not concentrated in groups, but they do vote when there's good reason to. It's not a secret that they're an important part of the electorate, as professors Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes bemoaned when they noted that libertarian ideas are "astonishingly widespread in American culture."
If Rove had read their book, he might have paid more attention to voters like the gun-owning woman lawyer in Reno who told me she usually donates substantial sums to Republican candidates but couldn't even vote for this Republican president; or Republican investor Doug Andrews in Colorado who told the "Financial Times" that "the world is much more dangerous as a result" of the Iraq war; or Missouri nurse Terry Hammer who voted for Bush in 2000 but was appalled by the anti-gay marriage amendment; or financial consultant Kim Mecklenburg, featured in a Moveon.org ad, who says she has always voted Republican but feels "betrayed [by] reckless spending"; or Missouri farmer Faye Pavelka who likes tax cuts but only if you also reduce spending; or Internet millionaire Eric Greenberg who raised $100,000 for Republicans in 2000 but this year raised far more for Democrats because of what he sees as Republican restrictions on stem-cell research. Or . . . well, you get the idea.
You don't have to look just at individual voters. Many libertarian, limited-government and traditional Republican opinion leaders either endorsed Kerry or refused to make an endorsement, including columnists Andrew Sullivan, Stephen Chapman and Robert George; "The Economist" magazine; and almost 60 newspaper editorial pages.
At least 36 newspapers switched from Bush in 2000 to Kerry in 2004, including the "Orlando Sentinel," "Chicago Sun-Times," "Los Angeles Daily News" and "Memphis Commercial-Appeal." The "Orlando Sentinel" complained that "Mr. Bush has abandoned the core values we thought we shared with him -- keeping the nation strong while ensuring that its government is limited, accountable and fiscally responsible."
Perhaps even more tellingly, at least nine papers abandoned their previous endorsement of Bush but couldn't bring themselves to endorse Kerry. The staunchly conservative "Detroit News" wrote that in 2000, "We endorsed George W. Bush based on his promises of fiscal conservatism, limited government and prudence in foreign affairs. Today, we sadly acknowledge that the president has failed to deliver on those promises."
It's George W. Bush who almost lost this election, not the idea of limited government. In the most recent poll that asked the question, 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes.
Bush ran worst with voters under 30, perhaps because solid majorities of them favor smaller government and oppose the marriage amendment and other gay-bashing. Young voters from the Reagan years are still voting Republican, but the Bush-Rove borrow-and-spend-and-nanny-state strategy may have cost their party a generation.
The libertarian voters who stayed home this year or switched to Kerry are still up for grabs. Bush and the Republican Congress could appeal to them by reining in spending and extricating us from Iraq, or the Democrats could reach out with fiscal responsibility, a more prudent foreign policy, and more respect for the Constitution. Which way the libertarian voters go may decide elections for decades to come.