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James Fallows, longtime writer for The Atlantic Monthly and author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.
Thoughts about tomorrow: James Fallows weighs in on the election
James Fallows weighs in on the election
By Gayla Marty
Published on November 12, 2004
What to make of the 2004 elections? National correspondent James Fallows shed some light on that question Wednesday night in his talk, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." Fallows is not only a good writer, but a fluid and often funny speaker, drawing many laughs during the evening for his direct style and savvy look inside Washington and the media.
Speaking on the Twin Cities campus at the Cowles Auditorium, Fallows immediately fell into the conversational style that makes him a frequent television commentator.
Called one of the superstars in his profession, Fallows is a longtime writer for The Atlantic Monthly, most recently covering the Washington side of the Iraq war. Early in his career he worked as a speechwriter in the Carter administration. He's written seven books, including National Defense, for which he won a National Book Award, and Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.
"I know and like Teresa Heinz Kerry very much," Fallows said, "but when she greeted the [Democratic National] Convention in five languages, the guy next to me said, 'There goes Kansas!'"
His four-part talk moved at a fast clip to answer the questions: What happened in this election? Did it have to be that way? And what will this mean--in the short-term, the next one to two years, and in the long term?
The closest historical analogy to this election, he said, was Ronald Reagan's win in 1980. "It's the case of a 'won' election rather than a 'lost' election," he said several times during the evening, emphasizing that the Bush campaign did everything right and the Kerry campaign did almost everything as well as it could, but not well enough to win. The Republicans succeeded at mobilizing Christian evangelicals, Hispanics, women (especially married women), exurbanites, and the Jewish vote. And the Republicans were better at stating their case. While George Bush is not a good off-the-cuff speaker, "George Bush the debater is very good," Fallows said, "except in the first debate with Kerry."
- The margin of victory: There's evidence that machine ballots resulted in more skewed results than paper ballots, raising suspicions of fraud, Fallows said, but "I declare myself skeptical of those theories." Nevertheless, he noted that the two narrowest victories since Woodrow Wilson's in 1916 were George W. Bush's in 2000 and 2004. "So it was a mandate--but sort of; and a big win--but not really."
- Things that might have made a difference: Fallows went through several of the closest contenders and concluded that Kerry was indeed the best candidate and Edwards the best vice presidential candidate the Democrats could have put forward. Later during discussion, he conceded that McCain on the ticket could have made the difference, but that McCain needed to stay in the Republican party to be able to run, himself, in 2008; he also said the judicial vote to support gay marriage in Massachusetts "gave the Republicans an issue and the mobilizing tool they needed." Osama bin Laden's video released at the last minute, on the other hand, probably just solidified existing views. As for the best candidate's wife? "I know and like Teresa Heinz Kerry very much," Fallows said, "but when she greeted the [Democratic National] Convention in five languages, the guy next to me said, 'There goes Kansas!'"
- What the election means in the short-term: "The real question is, what will George Bush do next? Dramatic, big, risky things? His mission may be rooting out terrorism, as he's said. Or, could it be to surprise everyone by becoming a 'great man,' by becoming a conciliator?" Fallows also cited factors to watch: unknown historical events (such as 9/11, or the death of Yassir Arafat), the form the "inevitable second-term disaster" will take, what the Democrats will do, and how Republicans will start jockeying for position for the 2008 election.
- What we can expect: For Iraq, there's no foreseeable exit strategy, Fallows said, though a fig leaf might be offered if Iraq's provisional government should say "Yankee, go home!" and the United States does. For the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arafat's death might provide an opening for new solutions. For the global war on terrorism--"GWOT, that's what it's called now. Everybody's looking for the right way to fight the GWOT, and how you might do this, other than just playing whack-'em-all." For Iran, Fallows referred to his cover story in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly, "Will Iran Be Next?" in which he covered a classic Pentagon war game and its participants. "There's not going to be another war because there aren't enough soldiers, and there won't be privatization [of Social Security] because there's no money," he said. Nobody will propose a draft. The President will push, but not hard, for more tax cuts. "The environment and energy, and the judiciary--this is where the real fights will be," Fallows said, "the pitched battle."
- What the election means in the long term: Fallows drew on his own observations since the 1964 election between Johnson and Goldwater to describe the "southern strategy" and long-term conversion of the South from the Democrat to the Republican party to create a power base that the Democrats now realize they have to contend with. "This is a real, historical positioning problem," he said. Problems for the Republicans? "Well, really, they have no problems," he smiled, but they need to watch for the "hubris of the second term," succession issues (George Pataki, Jeb Bush, Karl Rove-favorite Bill Frist, and John McCain), and the impending collapse of the dollar.
- John McCain: "He probably doesn't have the temperament to be a VP. And he's old enough to have to run for president in 2008."
- The media: "What you saw [in this election season], were people living in separate 'fact universes' depending on the media they see and listen to," said Fallows. "I fear that trends are underway in the media that are uncorrectable. When the media become something that's just another business, the natural result is a relatively small 'high end,' like five-star hotels in the hospitality business, while the rest is poor."
- Language: "The Republicans knew they'd won when they heard John Kerry say, 'Who among us does not enjoy NASCAR?'...[The positioning problem for the Democrats] requires a kind of identity politics, finding a governor with the experience plus someone who can speak naturally about normal life. This means not Hilary Clinton, or Barak Obama, at least not in 2008. The Democrats are left with a greater challenge than in the last hundred years--to find out who speaks for them."
Fallows's talk was one of two annual lectures sponsored by the Humanities Institute in the College of Liberal Arts. Cosponsors included the Department of Political Science and the Center for Writing.