Here's my version of the 'where do we go from here' essay.
Listening to Ira Glass's interviews with undecided voters in red states on This American Life gave me an idea. Due to months and months of attack ads, negative impressions of Bush's opponent were so widespread, and so reflexive, that they became like breathing. Many people thought of Kerry -- without realizing where the impression came from -- as at once "the most liberal Democrat in the Senate" (far from true), and a terrible flip-flopping, bin-Laden loving Frenchman with ketchup in his veins instead of Bush's blue blood.
Kerry's considerable advantages, as well as Bush's serious deficiencies, were completely nullified by the targeted sliming of Kerry for so long and in such a widespread way.
So for next time, I nominate the creation of a dummy candidate to draw Republican fire. What he'll do: first, break publicly with the Democratic party -- on live TV, during the primary debates. He'll be a populist, gun-toting, anti-Seinfeldian hero. He'll be rigorously anti-outsourcing and pro-American labor. Maybe he's also a soft libertarian ("I believe people should be able to smoke in bars, have as many rifles as they want, and marry whoever they damn well please"). He's in favor of "bringing every one of our boys home on January 23, 2009."
I'm not thinking Howard Dean, I'm thinking Jesse Ventura.
He immediately becomes wildly popular, third in the polls, and only a little behind the Democratic candidate. He draws equally from Republican and Democratic bases. The Dems, with Hilary Clinton as their sanest option, seem to despair. The Republican candidate John McCain -- who is using Karl Rove as his chief election advisor -- is extremely worried. The Republicans don't know how to attack someone like this. John McCain's own history as a "straight-talker" and a "maverick" are by 2008 distant memories, as 8 years of smiling next to Bush on camera have taken their toll.
Still, once our sneaky third-party candidate gets above 30% in the polls (and passes Hilary) the attack ads fly. And the attack ads against Hilary, who is seen as less of a threat, do not. By October, our independent candidate seems to be running a bit ragged, after being attacked for his 1982 DUI, his Vietnam draft-dodging, his two divorces, and his hunting accident (to add a little spice). His supporters, somehow, cannot shake the negative impressions created by the McCain team, despite the fact that Bush too had a DUI hiding somewhere, and a very shabby service record of his own. John McCain, of course, is a decorated war hero.
When the scandal of Bush's steamy affair with Karen Hughes breaks (it took place in the summer of 2001, in Crawford! phone transcripts on Smokinggun.com!) in the middle of the spring of 2008, neither the dems nor our independent candidate can find a way to make damage from the allegations stick. After all, "John McCain is not George Bush."
And then... and then... 20 days before the elections in 2008, our mystery candidate disappears. To be exact, he appears at a press-conference blind drunk to announce his immediate withdrawal from the race. He puts a rant on his website against politics, where he scorns the very idea of ever holding public office. And he heaps scorn on his main opponent, John McCain, and especially the Republican party. The language is extremely over-the-top; the document soon becomes a cultural monument. College students print it out and post it on dorm room walls. People at "water coolers" recite the most damning phrases incredulously, jokingly. But over time, they set in.
Then our dummy candidate, his service completed, flies in a jet furnished by MoveOn PAC to a small Caribbean island owned by Joe Trippi (now an internet billionaire), where he lives happily ever after. His name gets pulled off voter rolls.
The McCain team, shocked and exhausted, has no time to redirect its energies.
Hilary Clinton, who suddenly seems like an angel sent from heaven, wins the election in a landslide, bringing a democratic congress with her.
Republicans, distraught, worry for the future of their party.