San Diego Union Tribune

November 4, 2004

Challenges lie ahead in conciliation

By Dana Wilkie

WASHINGTON – In any presidential election, there will be millions of voters disappointed by their candidate's loss – but perhaps never more than in this expensive and bitterly fought campaign.

Tuesday's election capped four years of division and distrust after the 2000 presidential contest that many Democrats believe was stolen.

How to heal those wounds and unite a nation will be a major challenge facing President Bush in his second term.

"Ordinarily, the bitterness of the losing side dissipates in a couple of months, but that wasn't true in 2000," said Adam Clymer, political director of the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey. "Whether this campaign – as dishonest a campaign as I can recall – will yield to national unity depends to a considerable degree on how Kerry, and to a much greater extent Bush, handle the aftermath."

Both Bush and Sen. John Kerry talked yesterday about the need for national unity. Kerry reportedly told Bush during his phone call to concede the election that the country was too divided and that "we really have to do something about it."

"Whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning, we all wake up as Americans," the Massachusetts Democrat said during his concession speech. "In the days ahead, we must find common cause, we must join in common effort without remorse or recrimination, without anger or rancor."

In his victory speech, Bush directly addressed Kerry's supporters.

"To make this nation stronger and better, I will need your support, and I will work to earn it," Bush said. "A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation."

But calling for unity and accomplishing it are two different things.

The fissures created in the last four years run deep. They were opened by a 2000 election in which Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote to Bush after the U.S. Supreme Court ended a 36-day recount in Florida. An Annenberg survey in March found that almost 70 percent of Democrats believed Gore was "somehow cheated" out of the presidency.

Then came what many Democrats view to be Bush's divisive policies on social issues, the environment and the war in Iraq. Divisions were deepened by a presidential race that analysts say was plagued by distortion and nastiness.

Tensions were so high about the integrity of this year's voting process that partisan monitors, attorneys and voter-registration challengers descended on polling places to watch for voter fraud. On Monday, only 62 percent of registered voters were "very confident" that their votes would be accurately counted, according to a poll by Annenberg. On Election Day, an Associated Press poll found only about half of voters were similarly confident.

But voting went relatively smoothly Tuesday, and some now hold out hope that this might contribute to national healing.

"Procedural issues certainly didn't play as large a role as they did in 2000," said Doug Chapin, director of the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project.

Unlike in 2000, Bush won convincingly on Tuesday – rolling up a margin of 3.5 million votes. Moreover, he is the first presidential candidate to win a majority since his father did in 1988. All that takes away the main complaint from those who feel Bush unfairly won the White House in 2000.

Leading Democrats said that if Bush is sincere about uniting the country, he must compromise with Democrats to accomplish reforms in health care, Social Security and class-action lawsuits. They said he must also put forward more moderate nominees to the federal bench and the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It's clear that a second term is the time to build that legacy (of reconciliation)," said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat. "How he does it is really very, very important."

Others said Bush must adopt a more middle-of-the-road position on issues – or at least not make them priorities – such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

"If Bush is concerned about the degree of division in the country, he needs to be somewhat less partisan, somewhat more centrist in his approach," Clymer said.

Is the nation more polarized today than ever before?

Some experts, like Stanford political science professor Morris Fiorina, say people are no more set in their political views today than they were 30 years ago.

"Bush is a divider, not a uniter, and Kerry represents the liberal wing of the Democratic Party," he said. "You can have voters looking very polarized in their choices because the people they're choosing between are very polarized, not because (voters) are."

But others say GOP and Democratic voters have grown increasingly divided over the years.

"The differences between the right and the left . . . are really quite profound, and it's not something that is going to be papered over," said GOP consultant Joe Gaylord.

Mark Baldassare, research director at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, believes that as more moderates pull out of political parties or decline to join them and become independents, those who remain in the parties are more inclined to take left-or right-leaning views.

"We clearly see Democrats and Republicans have grown further apart on every public policy question," he said.

Bush and Kerry often appealed to remarkably different voters. People who differ starkly in background, occupation, religion and education are sometimes bound to distrust – or at the very least, have a hard time understanding – one another, said Nancy Sinnott Dwight, a GOP consultant.

Exit polls indicated that Bush enjoyed strong support from white men, families with incomes over $100,000 and weekly churchgoers. Their top issues tended to be moral values and terrorism. Kerry drew much of his support from women, blacks, Hispanics and households with incomes under $30,000. Their top issues tended to be the economy and jobs.

"I would say that we're a nation divided, but not divided to the extreme that we can't be reunited," Sinnott Dwight said. "We just need to be reacquainted with each other."

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