Mercifully the 2004 elections are over – certainly the most expensive and bitterly divisive Presidential campaign in modern history. The degree of nastiness, the reckless and irresponsible rhetoric, and the demeaning and often outrageous charges and countercharges leveled, if not by the candidates, then by their surrogates and operatives, created a new low in political discourse.

It is astonishing that within this septic tank of distortion, obfuscation and outright lies, the overriding reason for the Bush victory was not the war in Iraq, which a majority of voters now oppose, not the war on terror, not the economy, health care, lost jobs, or trade deficits, but moral values.

In 2000 Al Gore, a wooden and ineffective campaigner, couldn’t hold off the Supreme Court appointment of George W. despite running on the strength of the best eight years in the history of the republic and a fairly distinguished career, both as Vice President and a longtime member of the Senate. While Bush at that time possessed no credentials for leading the free world, Gore couldn’t even carry his own state.

John Kerry, with Bush’s four year record of arrogance, intolerance, pre-emption, fiscal irresponsibility, soaring deficits, intelligence failures, human rights abuses, negative job growth and near universal international scorn to run against, got soundly thumped.

While Kerry, a wealthy Roman Catholic Brahmin and his even wealthier hard-edged wife, did not play real well with Joe Six Pack and NASCAR America, he clearly trounced Bush in all three debates, appearing much smarter, more knowledgeable, more disciplined and vastly more Presidential. If it were strictly a personality contest he should have won. Carl Rove, the “architect,” and Republican Party strategists deserve the lion’s share of the credit for laying a solid claim to family/moral values. They convinced mainstream voters that to favor a woman’s right to choose or to perform embryonic stem cell research is to oppose life. To favor an extension of the assault weapons ban is to abolish the Second Amendment. To recognize civil unions between members of the same sex is to oppose heterosexual marriage. To support affirmative action is to favor the establishment of race based quotas.

The conservative coalition of evangelicals, gun lovers, rural and suburban largely white and middle class Americans, have been trained to believe that liberals are evil, godless, big government, anti-defense, pro-tax, anti-life, anti-gun leftists who would turn the reins in Washington over to activist judges, trial lawyers and Hollywood celebrities. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, a decision which John Kerry opposed, it put the issue on the ballot in 11 states, three of them key battleground states, two of which Kerry lost as a Massachusetts senator with weak moral values.

The fact that Wilson, Roosevelt and Truman were in charge of winning both World Wars – that liberals like Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson desegregated schools, passed civil rights legislation, created pure food and drug laws, Social Security and Medicare, championed equal rights and a level playing field for all, irrespective of race, gender or national origin. Europeans have apparently not forgotten that it was the Marshall Plan, not the Nixon, Eisenhower, Reagan or Bush plan, which rebuilt the Continent. It was liberals who established the G.I. Bill, and activist trial lawyers and judges who finally brought the tobacco industry to its knees.

Carl Rove and his disciples have done a superb job of defining all personal injury suits as frivolous, even when a butcher takes off the wrong leg, or a drunken politician runs over a baby carriage, or Rush Limbaugh trafficks in drugs.

While clearly some lawsuits are trivial and some jury awards excessive, “trial lawyer” should not equate to “child molester.” The big drug companies and their obscene after-tax, after-research, after-marketing profits, do more in a week to drive up health care costs than a year’s worth of unwarranted malpractice claims. The moral values set is in love with the big drug companies, bigger energy companies, defense contractors and gun manufacturers.

They would deny a young woman the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, and oppose the availability of birth control information and devices in the schools to avoid the pregnancy in the first place. They would prefer that a single 15-year-old be forced to deliver a baby, but want nothing to do with feeding, housing or educating these high risk children. Social conservatives love prisons, executions and tax relief for the wealthy. They oppose affirmative action for minorities, the poor and women, but see nothing wrong in Bush getting into Yale as a legacy, or Halliburton receiving sole source contracts for billions in Iraq.

I wonder what percentage of the proportion of voters who would repeal Roe v. Wade would also repeal capital punishment? Not many is my guess. Clinton got not one single Republican vote for going into Haiti or the Balkans, and was strongly criticized by George W. as a nation builder recklessly endangering the lives of American servicemen.

It is not unlikely that George W. and Iraq will be regarded as the biggest failure in a long and sordid history of unilateral nation building. The moral values set, in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, fiercely defended the preposterous thesis that the invasion made the world safer from terrorists, when almost everyone, save Donald Rumsfeld, a poster boy for moral values, believes the opposite. Better than 50 years ago Joe McCarthy proved that the bigger the lie, the more likely the masses will buy it. While both parties mutilated the truth throughout the campaign, this monstrous lie was the cornerstone of the Bush victory. Even after winning, Bush refuses to moderate his stand on the issue. Continuing escalation of violence and acts of terror by Islamic fundamentalists, using the invasion as a rationale for continuing war against the U.S., will make it very tough the for the next moral values candidate for President to toe the Bush line.

Throughout our still brief history, the great strength of our republic is the ability to rally and then coalesce behind a course of action with strong bipartisan support for the greater good of all. The absolute separation of church and state is perhaps our strongest weapon in making this happen. Much evil has been done in the name of God, or at least as one strong group chooses to define God, and His mandates, at a particular point in history. Our Founding Fathers understood this and scrupulously avoided commingling religion and government. It should make every voter a little nervous when our commander in chief, who sleeps with the world’s only operational nuclear capability at his fingertips, launches a holy war without justification. It is equally disturbing when the attorney general conducts mandatory prayer meetings for those charged with protecting everyone’s First Amendment freedoms, even atheists, aliens and followers of Islam.

When any church exercises too much influence on a government it often leads to a crusade. At the moment, the Christian Right and the gun lobby exert a wildly disproportionate influence over the Republican Party, having all but stifled the moderate centrist wing, making it possible for Bush to do God’s work as he sees it, and perhaps going forward pack the Supreme Court with enough repression to roll back a half century of social justice.

If that happens, the pendulum will no doubt swing back, but in the meantime our real moral values will take an enormous beating.