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:

But as we respect someone's rights, and as we profess tolerance, we shouldn't change--or have to change--our basic views on the sanctity of marriage. I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I think it's very important that we protect marriage as an institution, between a man and a woman.

I proposed a constitutional amendment. The reason I did so was because I was worried that activist judges are actually defining the definition of marriage, and the surest way to protect marriage between a man and woman is to amend the Constitution.

It has also the benefit of allowing citizens to participate in the process. After all, when you amend the Constitution, state legislatures must participate in the ratification of the Constitution.

I'm deeply concerned that judges are making those decisions and not the citizenry of the United States. You know, Congress passed a law called DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act.

My opponent was against it. It basically protected states from the action of one state to another. It also defined marriage as between a man and woman.

But I'm concerned that that will get overturned. And if it gets overturned, then we'll end up with marriage being defined by courts, and I don't think that's in our nation's interests.

It was in response to this foray that an annoyed-looking Kerry began his own answer to Schieffer: "We're all God's children, Bob. And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as."

In context, it's hard to see this cold, seemingly gratuitous use of Mary Cheney as anything other than an implicit threat of retaliation to Bush's decision to open ideological space between himself and Kerry on their approach to dealing with same-sex marriage.

If Bush had made more such forays, particularly in swing-state advertising, the voter-perceived threat posed by judicial activism to traditional marriage might have been more widely understood. But it is at least arguable that the 11 successful same-sex constitutional referenda on the November 2 ballot, including one of the strictest in Ohio, kept the issue in voters' minds without too much further help from the Bush-Cheney campaign.

If there was one final development destined to bring judicial activism on the social issues back into voters' minds it was the announcement, just eight days before the election, that Chief Justice William Rehnquist has been stricken with thyroid cancer and had undergone an emergency tracheotomy and began chemotherapy. The day before the election, Rehnquist announced that he had not been physically able to return to the court on Monday, as he had earlier planned.

On Election Day, the National Election Pool exit poll asked voters what was the issue that influenced them the most. The unexpected winner: "Moral Values," running ahead of Economy/Jobs, Terrorism, and Iraq. Among these voters--22 percent of the national total--Bush bested Kerry 80 to 18 percent. Nationally, 18 percent of all voters were in the Bush "Moral Values" category, 4 percent in the Kerry "Moral Values" category. In an election he won by 3-plus points, in other words, Bush won "Moral Values" voters by 14 points, while losing all other voters combined by between 10 and 11 points.

How is it possible that in a time of war and global crisis, voters see "Moral Values" as comparably important--an issue that was central in delivering reelection to a consequential, controversial wartime president?

The answer is that voters can weigh more than one big worry at the same time. In 1980, Americans felt beleaguered by the fear of losing the Cold War and by stagflation at home. A more "sensible" politician than Ronald Reagan would have suggested addressing one crisis first, then turning our emphasis to the other.

Counterintuitively, Reagan sensed that he needed to address both crises at once. He cut taxes deeply, supported Paul Volcker's ratcheting up of interest rates, and instituted a massive military buildup, all in his first year as president. By 1982, Reagan's job performance rating had fallen into the 30s, and he was widely regarded as a failure. In 2004, the year of his death, what Reagan did goes by a different name.

Today, many voters' sense of security is equally threatened by military attacks by our terrorist enemies and by elitist judges' assaults on our ability to guard our moral standards by means of self-government here at home. As he thanked his supporters and the American people in the Ronald Reagan Building Wednesday afternoon, President Bush took a giant step toward a comparable achievement.

Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon are principals of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm.