Agonized Democrats who are shaking their heads in disbelief over the results of Tuesday's presidential election need to look at three phenomena in the just-concluded campaign, two of which may have been decisive and beyond their control.
The country was brutally attacked three years ago and is now in the midst of a war the administration links to that provocation. Except when the incumbent chose not to run -- Harry Truman in 1952, Lyndon Johnson in 1968 the nation has never changed its commander-in-chief during wartime. Indeed, Franklin Roosevelt won a third term in part because war was approaching and a fourth because it was still raging. The country has been, in that regard, thoroughly and understandably conservative.
Religion played a bigger role in the campaign and election than many "blue-staters" understood. In many of the Republican states, and especially in the South, religion exerts a daily influence on life that would come as a surprise to many who are unacquainted with those parts of the country.
More than 20 percent of Tuesday's voters identified moral values as the most important factor in how they voted, and more than 75 percent of that group cast their ballots for Bush, the most overtly religious president in memory. What is more, the divisive issue of gay marriage, which arose in Kerry's Massachusetts, may have helped galvanize the religious right into voting in far greater numbers than it did four years ago.
This would not be the first time a religious awakening coincided with the turn of a century. Of the three "Great Awakenings" in American life -- times when religion moved to the forefront of the American experience -- two spanned centuries. The second ran from the 1790s to the 1840s, while the third began in 1896 and continued through 1908.
Even if the country is in the midst of a fourth such cycle, it alone does not explain Bush's success. The fundamentalist candidate in 1896 and 1900, William Jennings Bryan, lost twice to William McKinley, and again to William Taft in 1908. Clearly, other issues matter. Without a war and with a more approachable candidate, the race might have been closer. But neither John Kerry nor Al Gore ever connected with voters the way Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan did, and as President Bush, to some extent, still does.
That, of course, is the third issue. The candidate's personal qualities and his politics matter, and Kerry, despite some conservative leanings on financial matters, is clearly a social liberal. If he is not further to the left of Clinton, he is at least further left than Clinton appeared. The nation's willingness to embrace liberals has been fitful, and almost nonexistent since Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968.
The president and his chief political strategist Karl Rove understood that. They knew that they had to energize the huge core of social conservatives that believed the president spoke to their values in a way Kerry never could. Their victory is even more impressive when considered in the context of how well the Democrats actually did. Kerry not only got more votes than Al Gore did four years ago, he exceeded the vote total racked up by Reagan in the landslide year of 1984. Still, Kerry and his campaign team proved no match for the Republicans.
The good news for Democrats, both of the liberal and moderate camps, is that everyone wears out his welcome eventually. Republicans who think they have a lock on Congress and the presidency will, at some point, find events and patience turning against them. It could take a few years or a few decades. Should the president continue a far-right agenda that ignores deficits and leaves the United States isolated, it could come faster.
In the meantime, Democrats have to figure out how, in an age of rising religious influence and spreading conservatism, to stay true to their core beliefs of tolerance and social responsibility and still win elections. It may not be easy, but it shouldn't be impossible.
As for Bush, he won a significant victory running on a clearly conservative platform. He has every right to vigorously push for his program -- that's what elections are for, after all. But on Wednesday, he also said he would reach out to those who opposed him, saying, "a new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation." We can only hope he follows through on that sentiment.