Defeated vice-presidential candidates in America usually don't get much attention but Senator John Edwards signaled, perhaps inadvertently, what lies immediately ahead in US politics when he said on Wednesday: "This fight has just begun."
In brief but feisty remarks before Senator John Kerry, delivered his speech conceding the election to President George W. Bush, Edwards struck a combative tone that differed from the ritual platitudes appealing for unity that came from both Kerry and Bush. For one stark fact stands out despite the solid victory of Bush in the electoral college, the popular vote, and the Republican increase in its hold on the Congress: America is as divided as it has not been since the turbulent Vietnam era 40 years ago. That split will affect most decisions in domestic politics and foreign policy, including that toward Asia, for the next four years.
The division was especially vivid in the colored charts the television networks displayed to portray the cumulative results of the close election: The northeast and the west coast were Democratic blue while the heartland in middle America was almost completely Republican red.
Deep down in America today is a cultural canyon between the religious right and the secular left. A nearly unanimous conclusion drawn by political pundits once the results were known was that this election had been decided more on values than anything else, including economic issues.
On one side are the conservatives who cherish the traditional values of family, marriage, church, individual responsibility, the sanctity of life, and national security. On the other side are liberals who advocate abortion rights, homosexual marriage, a strong government social and economic role, and international relations based on alliances and the UN.
In addition is a widening political split, the Democratic coalition assembled by president Franklin Roosevelt in the Depression years of the 1930s is crumbling as its leaders pass from the scene. In contrast, the Republican coalition forged by president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s has taken hold across the land.
Personalities in politics are never to be underestimated. For four years, liberals have been outspoken in their dislike, even hatred, of Bush and that may have drawn a conservative backlash. The liberal disdain, however, is matched by the intensity of the conservative contempt for former president Bill Clinton, which may have generated a similar backlash.
Another divisive point: The campaign just concluded was the nastiest, least civil in the last 50 years. The mud-slinging, name-calling, false advertising and scandal mongering on both sides and at every level from the presidential races down to local legislative contests is not likely to be forgotten even after gracious speeches urging support for common causes.
US policy in Asia did not figure in the election campaign outside of debate on how to cope with North Korea's aspiration to acquire nuclear arms. That does not mean that Bush will have a free hand as he begins his second term; Senator Kerry retains his seat in Congress, giving him a platform from which to lead criticism and opposition to the president. Edwards, however, did not run for re-election to the Senate.
If Bush so chooses, he will have a venue from which to launch his second term's Asia policy when he attends the APEC forum in Chile later this month. Surely the 21 Asian leaders gathered there will be looking for an exposition of his ideas for the next four years.