The Magazine

The Seriousness Gap

Why voters turned Republican.

Nov 18, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 10 • By CHUCK DONOVAN and FRANK CANNON
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IT WAS SATURDAY AFTERNOON, 72 hours before the polls opened in Georgia, and President George Bush was in the state for the fifth time in 2002--three of them campaign swings for Saxby Chambliss. It was part of the last stage of a fierce drive that put Bush in 17 states in 15 days. The president took to the microphone in front of 6,000 cheering Republicans at the Cobb Galleria Centre and quipped, "Saxby said keep it short, the [University of Georgia] Bulldogs are playing." The crowd howled its approval.

Throughout the 2002 campaign, President Bush did keep it short--and simple. Two weeks earlier, he had spoken on behalf of Chambliss in downtown Atlanta. The assignment was difficult: Make the case for an underdog Senate candidate against Max Cleland, a decorated veteran who had never lost a campaign for elective office. Bush zeroed in on Cleland and the Democrats' blockage of the homeland security bill at the behest of federal labor unions. "Senate Democrats want to tie the hands of this department and determine who we can hire and who we can fire," Bush said.

Time and again in the weeks before the vote, Bush painted the Democrats into a corner. At a time when the nation is challenged to its very core, Democrats were playing not only partisan politics, but the worst form of partisan politics: interest group protectionism. If the Democrats would do this on homeland security, he implied, they would do it anytime, anywhere. Bush framed the stakes in 2002 in clear moral categories. Speaking of terrorists, he told the Atlanta audience, "We're fighting coldblooded killers. There's only one way to deal with that. Therapy isn't going to work."

Martin Peretz summed it up simply in the New Republic: "The nation is in danger, and Democrats avert their eyes."

The American people have come to terms with the presence in the world of implacable enemies, to whom no American life--man, woman, or child's--is innocent. With no act of aggression on our part, our homes, our businesses, our streets can become, in a heartbeat, places of blood and ash. Israel has lived with this reality for decades. It is now our reality, and, with a reflexiveness astonishing to behold, one of our major political parties considers all of it as, at best, a distraction from its strange brew of coalition politics.

Democrats spent most of the year after September 11 cobbling together Pyrrhic victories for their various incoherent splinter groups. They refused hearings to more than a dozen Bush judicial nominees; killed the president's efforts to revive charitable giving in order to placate left-wing homosexual groups that wanted new federal hiring privileges; reneged on their pledge to hold a Senate vote on a cloning ban; and blocked the homeland security bill. Voters found it hard to put a "United We Stand" sticker on this package.

The razor-thin margins in Senate races in Missouri, Minnesota, and South Dakota, two for the Republicans and one for the Democrats, prompted a hallucinatory Washington Post headline on November 6 claiming that the nation "remains evenly split." The nation was evenly split in November 2000. But now, two years later, the nation is moving decisively toward President Bush and his party. Not counting third parties, nearly complete raw vote totals in 36 governor's races show that GOP candidates as a group outpolled their Democratic opponents by 52.8 percent to 47.2 percent. In 34 races for the U.S. Senate, the gap was 52.2 percent to 47.8 percent. The Republican margin in House races, where the GOP now holds at least 227 seats, was almost a full 7 points--53.4 percent to 46.6 percent. That margin was a paltry 1.2 percentage points in 2000.

The "Seriousness Gap" is about more than war, peace, and freedom. For the last three election cycles the nation appeared to be embracing another emblem of Baby Boomer liberalism. Advocates of decriminalization of marijuana, for purposes medical and not so medical, were on a roll. Flush with cash from billionaire currency speculator George Soros and other benefactors, the Drug Policy Alliance had won 17 of 19 initiatives. They expected to do equally well this year, with referendums in Nevada, Arizona, South Dakota, Ohio, and the District of Columbia.

John Walters, the president's drug policy adviser, took a cue from his boss and campaigned personally in referendum states. He made the case that legalization was not a panacea but a retreat. This time around, Soros and his millions were beaten soundly. The results, Walters said, "affirm what most Americans already know: that no family, no community, no state is better off with more drug use."

The challenge now for Republicans is to carry on with the high purpose they have revived in our national life. Americans have shown that they want adults, not adolescents, in high office in times of peril. There is work to be done: terrorists to be caught or killed, regimes to be disarmed, judges to be appointed, poverty to be alleviated, families to be rebuilt, education to be reformed. It is a tall order, but November 5 proved once again that Americans take their votes seriously and will reward parties and candidates who do likewise.

Frank Cannon is a principal of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm. Chuck Donovan is a policy consultant and former CEO of the Family Research Council.