Perhaps I’m misunderestimating the point Jesse Helms was making recently when he recalled being attacked by a candidate who said Helms “has a very good following among people who believe the moon landing was fake and wrestling is real.” But surely Helms was expressing alarm over the abysmal lack of basic knowledge that handicaps so many voters–even some Republicans. Updated for use today, that oppo-crack could be about George W. Bush having “a very good following among people who think Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and believe the world loves Bush for invading Iraq.”

And Bush definitely has such a following, according to a report by researchers at the University of Maryland, entitled “The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters.” Get this: Among Bush voters, 75 percent think Iraq provided “significant help” to al Qaeda before 9/11, and 56 percent think that even today, “experts mostly agree” that Iraq had WMDs at the time we invaded. Among Kerry supporters, those numbers are 30 percent on Iraq helping al Qaeda and 18 percent on WMDs.

Oh, well, the experts could mostly be mistaken, I suppose, when they say Iraq had no WMDs, as per the Duelfer Report; or maybe the Bushies are counting the likes of Sean Hannity as experts. And maybe–despite the 9/11 Commission’s determination otherwise–Iraq was helping al Qaeda.

OK, then, explain this: 68 percent of Bush supporters think “most people around the world” say the U.S. did the right thing invading Iraq (26 percent) or are evenly divided on the question (42 percent). Only 31 percent of Bush backers get it that the world thinks we did the wrong thing–a fact demonstrated by recent Gallup and Pew polls, both of which revealed overwhelming opposition to our invasion all over the planet.

In short, the world’s negative opinion of us is a fact–like the moon landing–that is grasped by 74 percent of Kerry supporters, but only 31 percent of Bush’s. There’s a long list of other foreign-policy facts that the Kerry side gets right and the Bush side doesn’t, generally speaking. (Details are at

When half the electorate has a set of facts, and the other half answers with illusions, “the cohesion of society can be damaged … making the country difficult to govern,” the researchers conclude.

By the way, that opposing candidate who was so mean to Helms? It was Gov. Mike Easley, back when he ran for Helms’ Senate seat in the 1990 Democratic primary. “He’s quick with a sarcastic quip,” Helms grumbled in a letter supporting Patrick Ballantine for governor, “but lacking in leadership.” B ut let’s not flatter ourselves too much. The facts undermine Bush’s every position, and his propensity for ignoring them (and/or lying) has lit a fire under the Democrats, who are as charged up about winning this election as anything I’ve seen since … oh, since 1980, when the Republicans swept the country, led by Ronald Reagan. But, if elected, will the Democrats be any better?

Reagan led a decades-long conservative movement that was great at pummeling its opponents on the facts–like the combination of inflation and stagnant economic growth they called “stagflation”–but not as adept at dealing with them once in office. Bush II is only the culmination of a trend that began when Reagan counted ketchup as a school-lunch vegetable.

By my reckoning, the progressive movement is barely two years old, dating back to the day in March 2003 when Howard Dean denounced spineless Democrats like John Kerry for letting Bush march to war and cut taxes for the rich with impunity.

Today, the progressive Web sites and think tanks sag under the weight of our facts. Sadly, the current crop of Democratic “leaders” aren’t much inclined to use them, especially here in North Carolina.

Take Mike Easley. Watching him debate Ballantine, I was put in mind of a testy George W., groaning and bemoaning that he–the unquestioned leader–should have to stoop to public appearances not under his complete control.

Easley’s promises would require “a new revenue stream”; even he admits that. But rather than ask the voters, straight up, to support a progressive tax increase for vital social services and education, he pretends that a lottery will produce big money fairly. It won’t be big, and it sure won’t be fair.

But whenever Ballantine says anything about making state government better, Easley charges that Ballantine would have to raise taxes!

And Erskine Bowles, the Democratic candidate for Senate? He’s not for rolling back Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. He’s not for anything progressive, and as Harry Truman famously said, given a choice between a Republican and a Republican, the voters are going to pick the real Republican, right-winger Richard Burr.

Even Kerry, so fortunate to have Bush as an opponent, isn’t much good when it comes to facing the facts. Why doesn’t he ever mention oil prices? Answer: organized labor in Michigan. What about the bloated military budget? Oh, that’s right, Kerry wants a bigger Army. He says it’s Bush who will bring back the draft. But until he’s ready to cut military spending and bring home the troops, Kerry’s going to need a draft as much as the other guy.

Which was worse at presenting even the most rudimentary facts about the issues, the Republican Convention, with its fearmongering about 9/11, or the Democratic convention, with Kerry’s Band of Brothers circa 1970?

Where’s Ross Perot, and his charts and graphs, when we need him?

The facts, stubborn things that they are, tell us that the cost of the military-Halliburton complex, combined with the most expensive health-care system in the world by far, combined with a transportation and energy-generating system addicted to imported oil, is going to break the American bank one day soon, and is already dragging the value of the dollar down all over Europe and Asia.

What would Kerry do? He’s gonna need some stones if–fingers crossed–he wins. Or else he’s gonna sink like one very quickly.

S o here’s the hope. At a party for Wake County’s Democratic candidates the other day, Yevonne Brannon, who is a progressive, was talking about a former Dem who is now a Republican legislator. Why’d he switch? Because, he told her, the Republicans recruited him and promised him lots of support, which they proceeded to deliver. And the Democrats? What Democrats? They never even called. Four years ago, Brannon, then a Wake County commissioner, was beaten for re-election when the Republicans targeted her and took her down, and the local Democratic party–well, what Democratic Party?

But this year, as she runs for commissioner again, she’s the beneficiary of a resurgent party organization led by Lorrin Freeman, the chair, and Linda Watson, the executive director, and–Brannon says, almost conspiratorally–“the Deaniacs.” They’re raising money, they’re working the phones, they’re hammering in the signs, and the results of their work are on TV and in your mailbox every day. “It’s a complete turnaround. It’s great,” Brannon says.

At the local level, the most important phenomenon of 2004 is that the young progressive troopers who were drawn into politics by the war and the Dean campaign did not, repeat, did not go away. They are hard at it, and they have the energy–and the idealism–to transform the Democratic Party. Fingers crossed. x