The Magazine

Misunderestimated

From the November 15, 2004 issue: The hair-pullers and teeth-gnashers won't like it, of course, but we're nevertheless inclined to call this a Mandate.

Nov 15, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 09 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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IT HAS HAPPENED AGAIN. Here at home, a great many people who fashion themselves his moral and intellectual superiors turn out once more--as he might put it--to have misunderestimated George W. Bush. And it has happened abroad, as well, where the president's opponents and enemies--which is to say America's opponents and enemies--must now be pulling their hair and gnashing their teeth with frustration and resentment. The exit polls said Kerry would win. The New Yorker had endorsed him. And still those idiot Americans reelected Bush!

How sweet it is to contemplate the misery of people who think like this. And how doubly sweet the joy felt by the president's supporters after those same (misleading) exit polls had plunged them--us--into 12 long hours of anxious gloom. "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result," Churchill quipped. This week millions of Republicans know just what he was talking about.

But they should know something else, as well. Exit polls aside, the election was not, in fact, a "squeaker."

On November 2, 2004, George W. Bush won more American votes than any other presidential candidate in history--8 million more than he won in 2000, as a matter of fact. He was the first presidential candidate since 1988 to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote. He was the first incumbent since 1964 to win reelection while simultaneously expanding his party's representation in both houses of Congress. He had coattails, in other words; Republicans were elected to no fewer than six Senate seats that had previously been occupied by Democrats, for example, and in all six of those states, Bush ran well ahead of the rest of his party's ticket.

The hair-pullers and teeth-gnashers won't like it, of course, but we're nevertheless inclined to call this a Mandate. Indeed, in one sense, we think it an even larger and clearer mandate than those won in the landslide reelection campaigns of Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984, and Clinton in 1996. Needless to say, the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton victory margins were much, much bigger. But that's in no small part because each of those preceding presidents could plausibly claim to be stage-directing a Morning in America, or building a Bridge to the Twenty-First Century.

George W. Bush could run no such smiley-face campaign. He is a war president. So he has run a war president's remarkably serious and substantive campaign. That campaign was not without its flaws; Bush had his bad moments, especially in the first debate. But he won the overall campaign debate. And because he won that overall debate--not because the visuals were nifty; not because it was the economy, stupid--he won the right to lead the United States for another four momentous years. George W. Bush's 2004 election is an accomplishment of ideological confirmation not unlike--obvious box-score distinctions notwithstanding--the one Franklin Roosevelt achieved in 1936.

Except that Roosevelt's, if anything, was easier. Bush chose the steepest possible climb. A year ago, when the president announced the July 1 transfer of power in Iraq, it was the consensus of cynics everywhere that Karl Rove had informed his boss that politics required him to slither away from Baghdad. Everyone who was anyone, here and in Europe, "knew" that this transfer of sovereignty would be an exit strategy in disguise. Everyone "knew" that Rove would never place his client president before the electorate while 150,000 American troops were still taking daily casualties--and considerable criticism--in the Middle East. Whatever mistakes the administration has made these past 18 months--and there've been more than a few too many--President Bush deserves enormous credit simply for staying the course, for rejecting bad advice to cut and run from purported friends and foes alike. On this central question of national security and principle, George W. Bush has proved himself an extraordinarily courageous president.

And the American people deserve enormous credit for backing up and ratifying his resolve. Let those who would dispute the point pull their hair till they're bald.

Now, the day after Election Day, is not the time to begin debating what sort of ambitious second-term agenda the president should adopt. It is enough to say that its ambitiousness will prove the key to its success. In his elegant Boston concession speech on Wednesday, John Kerry made a public plea for bipartisanship in the Washington, D.C., of a second Bush administration. And the president would be well advised to take Kerry up on the offer; bipartisanship is a fine thing, and nuance is a useful and admirable political grace.

But true statesmanship, and the landmark achievements that attend it, demand something more. L'audace, toujours l'audace, said Danton.

Who says George W. Bush doesn't understand the French?

--William Kristol