Here's the deal: back in the day, conservatives believed in conserving the things they had - natural resources, money, entitlement. Liberals believed that those things should be given away freely. Times have changed and while we've kept the words "conservative" and "liberal," I'm not at all sure what they mean anymore. We have also come to accept that Republicans are "conservative," while Democrats are "liberal." Those are the labels that Americans bandy about, but they're useless. In fact, it turns out that almost all of the words this whole election centered around are useless.
What ended up happening is that the Democrats let themselves be bullied into being reactionary. Whatever the Republicans said, Democrats reacted to it, which meant that the Republicans got to define the words being used and make the Democrats refute their definitions. Big mistake. The Republicans would have people believe that the big issues of this election are the war, gay marriage and the economy. Those words are big and every American has an opinion about them, but once we start talking, it becomes clear that nobody's talking about the same things.
The Republicans are backing their "war president." We're at War. War against terrorism, war in Afghanistan, then Iraq. War that was declared officially over May 3, 2003, yet is still claiming the lives of soldiers and civilians on both sides. War that was not sanctioned by the UN or most of the world. But this President has never let popular opinion dissuade him from believing that he's the man for the job. But the average person on the ground has doubts. Those "weapons of mass destruction," the ones on which we based our consent - those were never there. The area has destabilized just like every expert available said it would, but Bush would have us believe that this means we need more war, not less. Most people just want the fighting to stop. They want their kin to come home and they want the Middle East to not be so angry anymore. We're not all that far apart in this. But Democrats, by saying "This war is bad, we're pulling out now," have allowed this President to define them as weak. They don't have the stomach to stay and fight. The Democrats never said "This war was key in destabilizing the Middle East and here's how we're going to restore stability." I never heard that message. It's a pity. A lot of people would have liked to know.
Another hot-button issue was gay marriage. The Republicans stepped up first and said "You're either for the Christian-sanctioned one man/one woman idea, or you're for writhing drug-induced orgies." It's one of those untenable positions like the old "When did you stop beating your wife" question. But at heart, I believe it to be a non-issue for this reason: the Republicans are using the religious idea of "marriage" and applying it to the legal idea of "marriage," and they're two entirely different things. There is the ceremony in which one stands up before one's friends and family and says to them "I've chosen this person for life and I want you all to know it." If the church decides, for whatever reason, that it doesn't want two people to be married, it just says "No, we're not going to do this." But the other marriage, the legal marriage, is the thing that more people are concerned with. There is the assignment of rights and interests in one's property that comes with legal marriage. For straight couples, all these rights come neatly tied up in one package called "marriage" that is automatically granted when one says "I do" in front of a preacher and takes a whole lot of legal wrangling to undo. The Democrats have allowed Republicans to talk out of both sides of their mouths about gay marriage, on the one hand insisting that it should be outlawed because it's against their religion, and yet insisting that they're still all for the separation of church and state. This is the issue. Not gay marriage.
The biggest issue that seemed to have slipped everyone's mind was the economy. Bill Clinton had a famous sign in his campaign headquarters that said "It's the economy, stupid." If Kerry had such a sign, he was unable to make use of it. I have a friend who's a diehard libertarian, and I asked him whether he thought he was better off now than he was under Clinton. We work at the same place, and I know for a fact that, because of the economy, he has not had a pay raise in two years. One of his best friends was laid off nine months ago and still hasn't found a job. His unemployment benefits would have ended in August. But he pointed to the $300 tax rebate he's received under Bush. As though that $300 makes up for the 8% in pay raises he would have gotten if the economy hadn't sunk. I know how much he makes. It doesn't even come close. But Bush saying that the economy is getting better, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is working just like his saying "There are weapons of mass destruction." People would rather hear good news. They would rather hear certainty and solutions than hearing "things are bad, and to make it better, we're going to have to work hard and do without." Bush is allowed to say that the skies are blue and the world is ours because that's what people want to hear.
It makes me long for the days of my childhood. Back when the Democrats wouldn't have stood for this. Back when the Democrats stood for getting resources to people who needed them. Helping low-income people with food and housing and public transportation. Helping small farmers with subsidies and agricultural programs. Helping children, the elderly, the disabled. But nobody talks about that anymore. The public spirit has gone out of the Democratic party and now it's not the party of helping the disenfranchised, it's the party of taking a bitch slapping from the Republicans.
This is what it comes down to when you let somebody else make the rules. You end up playing a game you're terrible at. I don't want to play anymore.