The Ironic Election Of '04

At left: "Let's Roll!" and "4 More Years" are the message from a Bush supporter (left) in Westlake, Ohio, 10-28-04. At right: anti-Bush protestors angry about the war in Iraq, outside the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio, 10-31-04.
This Against the Grain commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

The tantalizing irony of the 2004 presidential election is this: the campaign has inspired more participation and involvement than any in decades - participation and involvement that has often been shrill, divisive, dishonest and mean.

It's Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and "Fahrenheit 9/11" versus an unheard of outpouring of citizen campaign donations and probably the highest voter turnout since the 1960s.

The intensity of this campaign, and its closeness, means that one team of partisans will be terribly bitter and convinced the country is doomed when the votes are finally counted.

Counting is now the operative variable: if the votes are counted and counted once, decisively, with perceived legitimacy and there's a winner, the virtues of this election may endure. But if the country, recovering from 9/11 and fighting a war in Iraq, endures another 2000 - another unresolved challenge to a legitimate election - the lacerations of the campaign may again turn into permanent scars.

What happens is not inevitable and impervious to human action. It may be that some restraint and statesmanship from the candidates and their legal legions will be required to avoid another toxic disputed election.

The vices of Campaign 2004 aren't hard to chronicle. It's been the longest campaign in history and the most expensive. Campaign reform deformed, as a blizzard of political marketing was unleashed, fueled by hundreds of millions of poorly disclosed dollars from an explosion of independent groups the voters will have no opportunity to directly punish or reward.

The rhetoric from these groups has been mean-spirited and often inaccurate, often mirroring the propagandists of talk radio, cable television and the Internet. The official campaigns have indulged in unusually misleading propaganda, despite new squadrons of Internet-based fact checkers and truth squads.

Neighbors are fighting and stealing each other's lawn signs. Bookstores are filled with vitriolic, sour polemics by authors like Bill O'Reilly, Al Franken, Ann Coulter, David Corn, Laura Ingraham, Molly Ivins, Michael Savage and Maureen Dowd. A new kind of polemic documentary has made into movie theaters.

The campaign has basically ignored you if you don't live in a battleground state. Incumbents have so hijacked the Congressional elections that only about eight Senate races and 30 House races are contests and not rubber stampings.

Dirty tricks of Chicago ward politics have made a comeback across the country with voter intimidation drives and registration scams. Voters are worried the vote won't be counted fairly for the first time in decades. And the great American spirit of litigation now infects the polling place so that the most routine snafu is now fodder for conspiracy and a lawsuit.

An optimist can make some of the lemons into lemonade.

Maybe 527s are bad, but maybe they've helped finance and fuel a tough, vigorous debate. Maybe the political bestsellers are exploitive and poisonous, but when was the last time books about politics dominated the bestseller lists? Same with documentaries.

If the political class is polarized and myopically partisan, it is also intense. Voter apathy is on the shelf for this election. People are volunteering, donating, arguing - no longer feeling that individual participation is silly when PACs, labor unions, party machines, political consultants and corporations call all the shots.

The Internet has given many a new, comfortable way to participate. Young people and students seem to getting back into politics after a long spell of "Who cares, dude?"

We were told that the elections of 2000 weren't about anything. This election is about big things. If the campaigns didn't always rise to the occasion, the debates did; they were among the best presidential debates of the television era.

And in John Kerry and George Bush, the voters have a very clear choice of philosophy and of leadership style. The choices are clearer than usual, even if many voters are profoundly ambivalent about both of them.

That ambivalence is precisely what has made this a close election. And that ambivalence is unfathomable to the true believers, the partisan warriors and the polarized that will be poised on Election Day to challenge every ballot, card every voter and hang every chad.

Let's hope the passions of the true believers don't infiltrate the mechanics of voting and counting. Let's hope for what we nearly always have: a clean election and a clear winner. Short of that, let's demand common sense and restraint.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer