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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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.