Name That Narrative

Now that the election is over, it's time to enjoy the other great contest that occurs every four years right around this time: the quest for a narrative.

Now that the election is over, we can sit back and enjoy the other great contest that occurs every four years right around this time. I'm talking, of course, about the quest for a narrative. This is a race that's every bit as exciting as the campaign itself, and a lot more fun. Anyone can play. All you have to do is to take the results of this election and shape them into a single, all-encompassing story line that Explains Everything.

The game began in earnest in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the moment that Ohio dropped into the Bush column. And it will continue right through President Bush's inauguration and into the first year of his new term. So, pull up a chair and join in. The opening bids are very strong.

The Mandate Narrative. This is a perennial contender, and it always comes into play in more or less the same fashion. The winner of the election, or his surrogate, announces that the margin of victory represents a huge mandate. "President Bush ran forthrightly on a clear agenda for this nation's future," Dick Cheney announced in his victory speech, "and the nation responded by giving him a mandate." It did not go unnoticed that Cheney said these words in a building named after Ronald Reagan, whose 1984 victory made him King of All Mandates. Funny—carrying 30 or so states and 51 percent of the popular vote is not exactly the same as Reagan's 49 states and 59 percent of the vote, but never mind. Mandates are a floating crap game. The rule of thumb is, if the victory is larger than that of the last election, even by a single vote, then you've got yourself a Mandate Narrative. As soon as the president-elect's announcement is made, the media immediately rush in and confirm it: This president has a whale of a mandate! This sets up the media nicely for the Squandered Mandate Narrative, which always appears, like crocuses, in the spring of a new presidential term.

The Morality Narrative. A relative newcomer, this one got a boost from exit polls showing that many Bush voters cited moral issues as their reason for supporting the president. This reminded some players of the Red-Blue Narrative, winner of the Grand Narrative Championship in 2000. Nothing succeeds like success, so why not dress up that old dichotomy in new clothes? The new spin on morality holds that people in Red America care a great deal about moral questions, and that shapes how they vote. But Blue America's secular horde cares not a whit for moral questions and focuses instead on issues that have no moral content at all, such as ... the war in Iraq. See how that works?

The Culture Narrative. This option allows players to inject creative anthropological and behavioral observations into their narrative, highlighting the chasm between latte-swilling coastal types and real Tundra-driving Americans. Hardball host Chris Matthews took an early stab at it shortly after 1 a.m. on Wednesday, as the ballots were still being counted: "The Republicans were very good at playing on what might have been Kerry's problems to begin with. The fact that he was too Eastern, too elite, too French, too European-educated. And maybe they had an easy target. Do you think that, maybe, he seems like the kind of guy you wouldn't bump into in a diner somewhere in Sioux City? He just seems different, looks different, behaves differently than ... people in the middle of the country."

The Regional Narrative. This is the narrative which holds that geography is destiny. Countless pundits have observed this week that it's going to be virtually impossible for a New England liberal to win the nomination of the Democratic Party for president. As Kerry entered Faneuil Hall to make his concession speech, one cable sage even hinted that the curse that bedeviled the Red Sox for so long hasn't disappeared—it's simply been passed on to the region's politicians. This narrative had been going strong for years until it mysteriously disappeared when this year's race for the Democratic nomination came down to two New Englanders, Kerry and Howard Dean. Never mind—it's back! At this writing, it's not clear what will become of another essential tenet of the Regional Narrative, the one that says a Southern running mate broadens the appeal of any fey Northerner's ticket. Count up the Southern states that John Kerry won with the help of John Edwards and you'll see why this sub-narrative is on the injured list.

The Micro Narrative. Always risky but sometimes worth a gamble, this option involves choosing a very specific topic or interest group and pronouncing that the election was "all about" that one issue. Thus: "It was all about gay marriage." "It was all about terrorism." "It was all about the evangelicals." "It was all about Ohio." This narrative occasionally gets down to the level of specific people, as in, "It was all about Rove" or "It was all about Shrum." Both of these are currently in play.

The above is just a sample of what you'll see and hear as the great game unfolds in the coming weeks. The nattering nabobs of narrative are endlessly creative! And everyone's a winner. Oh, the fun is just beginning.