The Magazine

The Bush Realignment

From the November 15, 2004 issue: Morals matter most.

Nov 15, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 09 • By FRANK CANNON and JEFFREY BELL
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IT WAS EITHER history's closest landslide or profoundest squeaker. Arriving right on schedule, in the 36th year after the post-New Deal realignment of 1968, and culminating in Ohio, home base of the McKinley realignment dear to the heart of Bush strategist Karl Rove, the 3-percentage point reelection of George W. Bush dwarfs in potential importance the 49-state "lonely landslides" achieved by Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984.

In part, of course, that is because the 2004 election profoundly alters the Senate, the chief obstructer of the Bush agenda. Because of Bush's red-state coattails, Republicans won all five Democratic open seats and increased their predominance among southern senators from 13-9 to 18-4. Perhaps equally important, the defeat of Senate minority leader Tom Daschle was a shot across the bow of Senate liberals, who have been able to thwart Bush's conservative judicial nominees and so much of the rest of his domestic agenda. By contrast, the landslide reelections of Nixon and Reagan both coincided with Democratic gains in the Senate.

But it is also because the roller-coaster politics of the post-9/11 era have, at least so far, been mastered by a radical conservative president willing to take great risks in return for great rewards. Few leaders would have been willing to stay firm on the transformation of Iraq in the midst of the withering setbacks of the past year. Bush dared his Democratic opponent, and in effect the American people, to specify a better way. John Kerry failed to meet that dare, and the electorate ultimately stuck with Bush's high-risk forward strategy on the war against Islamist terror at its moment of greatest vulnerability.

This is not to say that Kerry and his advisers made a political blunder in their approach to terrorism and Iraq. The direct antiwar assault contemplated by Howard Dean would have fared far worse, had he or someone like him been the nominee. Kerry's nonspecific, minimalist alternative policy on Iraq, coupled with his broad attack on Bush's competence, nearly worked because Kerry and his team correctly recognized that 9/11 had changed America and its view of the world. Invading Iraq (or, one could speculate, Afghanistan) is not something a President Kerry would have done, but it was not a mindset candidate Kerry could have directly attacked without bringing his own suitability for the presidency into question. Kerry was correct in believing that however little 9/11 had changed him, it had marked a sea change in the worldview of the American people.

What Kerry failed to see, and ultimately what sealed the fate of his candidacy, was a similarly momentous change in people's view of social issues brought into play earlier this year by the high court of his own home state. As we argued in these pages a month before the election ("The Rise of the Values Voter," Oct. 11), survey research commissioned by Time and MSNBC/Knight-Ridder revealed that concern over social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage had taken a quantum leap this year and had become far more favorable to Republicans than in previous election cycles, particularly in the swing states in which the election was ultimately decided.

On a tactical basis, Kerry showed some awareness of the danger to himself and his party. He consistently opposed same-sex marriage, even saying he agreed with voters in Missouri who voted by 71 percent in the August primary to write a ban on same-sex marriage into their state constitution. Coincidentally or not, Bush moved into a strong lead in Missouri shortly after that vote, and the Kerry team subsequently pulled the plug on media spending in the state.

But in his final debate with President Bush on October 13, Kerry made what most observers regard as his only serious misstep of the three debates--a mistake that arguably deflected the momentum Kerry had achieved by his otherwise adroit performance in the debates. The circumstances are worth recalling.

Moderator Bob Schieffer began by asking Bush a question that could have been lifted from the Kerry playbook: "Mr. President . . . , let's shift to some other questions here. Both of you are opposed to gay marriage. But to understand how you came to that conclusion, I want to ask you a more basic question. Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?"

Bush replied that he didn't know, but that respect was due to people and their life choices. It would have been easy for Bush to stop there, but instead he implicitly rejected the premise of Schieffer's question and went on to explain how much more active his opposition to same-sex marriage is than Kerry's: