Posted: January 19, 2005
Editor's Note: This essay is adapted from a speech sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the Claremont Institute, delivered on November 15, 2004 in Washington, DC.
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hat emerged from the 2004 election was a moral consensus, and with it, something we might call a mandate. But it is not the mandate some are talking about.
Let's begin with some inescapable facts. George W. Bush is the first president of either party since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 to be reelected while gaining seats in both houses of Congress. President Bush won a majority of the popular vote (the first president in four elections to win a clear majority). He won by more votes (a margin of over 3 million) than Bill Clinton (both times), Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon (in 1968), John F. Kennedy, or Harry Truman. The president increased his support from almost every sector imaginable: black voters (although only a little, by about 3 percentage points), Hispanic voters (13 points), Jewish voters (5 points), and Catholic voters (about 5 points, which translates, however, into at least 1.5 million votes, half of his margin of victory). Meanwhile, Tom Daschle became the first party leader in the Senate to be ousted in over 50 years, and Louisiana elected its first Republican Senator since Reconstruction.
So what happened? To use a phrase of the Left, people "thought globally and acted locally" in this election. We saw this especially on the moral issues offered up by ballot initiatives, the most prominent being gay "marriage." Amendments against gay marriage succeeded in all eleven states where they were on the ballot, even in liberal Oregon. In job-wracked Ohio, which delivered Bush's electoral-college victory, the amendment succeeded by over 60%; and Phil Burress, who organized the initiative there, registered 54,000 new voters on the strength of that issue alone. In Ohio, the black community voted for President Bush by a greater percentage than their national average, giving him 16% compared to 11% nationwide. As a result, Ohio, which may have lost more jobs than any other state, delivered a 118,000 vote majority to Bush because of something more important, apparently, than jobs.
According to the National Exit Poll, when asked, more voters cited "moral values" as their top issue than cited the economy, terrorism, or Iraq. Other polls revealed a moral values vote as well. Of course, the choices are not completely severable, nor are the issues suggested by the phrase "moral values" severable either. Terrorism and Iraq are linked; and there are deep moral dimensions to the war on terrorism—especially for Bush voters. To some voters, perhaps many, "moral values" implied something about the character of the candidates. Bush voters clearly had a high opinion of President Bush's character when it came to such things as leadership, reliability, and credibility.
But surely, some meant what we usually mean by moral values—issues of life, family, country, decency, the coarsening of the culture. In the 2004 election we saw an emphatic rejection of political and cultural leftism on such matters for the second time in 30 years. The last time we experienced this emphatically was 1976, when Americans rejected McGovernism in the Democratic Party by nominating and then electing Jimmy Carter, the seemingly morally serious, and openly evangelical, candidate for president. The hopes and dreams for Jimmy Carter were dashed during his presidency (and he has been a great disappointment since), but in 1976 Carter was the most religious—and socially conservative—candidate.
The Return of the Left
For a quarter-century, the cultural Left was kept from dominating the Democratic Party. But in 2004, it returned. Back from exile, it was Michael Moore, Hollywood, and prominent parts of the mainstream media (think CBS and the New York Times) that made leftist politics and culture central themes for the Democrats.
John Kerry may himself have been a Vietnam veteran who gave a fairly hawkish convention speech, but his votaries, his movement, took it all with a wink and a nod—as what he had to say to try to get elected. His supporters (unlike their platform) were against the war. They debated and argued against the war across the country and on national television, objecting to Abu Ghraib more than to Saddam Hussein. Their opposition was so deep that John Kerry and John Edwards refused to sit through a Joint Session of Congress address by Iyad Allawi (the only leader in the Arab world seeking to build a democratic state) and then allowed their spokesman to call him "a puppet." They harped on a putative failure in Tora Bora more than they saluted Afghanistan's free elections. They obsessed on our failures—and we had failures—but they ignored our successes, and we certainly had those too. So, in foreign policy—on the conduct of the war—a part of the 1960s Left (the blame-America-firsters) was back, and seemingly in charge.
A clear demonstration of this was how Michael Moore's message in his movie Fahrenheit 9/11 gradually became indistinguishable from the Democratic Party's message. This was dangerous, because Michael Moore had said incredible things—that Americans are dumb, that George Bush was a deserter from the military (desertion is a federal crime), and that Iraq's bloodthirsty thugs were the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers. Yet the Democrats embraced Michael Moore and invited him into the Democratic sanctum sanctorum: first, at an official campaign rally for General Wesley Clark, where he had called President Bush a "deserter"; and later at the Washington, D.C., premier of Fahrenheit 9/11, attended by such Democratic luminaries as 9/11 commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe, Senator Tom Daschle, and Senator Tom Harkin. Finally, and triumphantly, Moore was given full and almost royal access to the Democratic National Convention, garnering the largest and most enthusiastic crowds, and availing himself of a prime seat in President Jimmy Carter's box.
All this was predictable, long before John Kerry's Democratic acceptance speech. Before the summer conventions, we already knew what the Democrats had done: they had nominated the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate. They put leftism front and center, and they wore it with pride.
Heart and Soul
In this way, the Democrats in general, and John Kerry in particular, fundamentally misunderstood the heart and soul of this country. Those words—heart and soul—are Kerry's words, not mine. He used them when he attended a July fundraiser at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Senator Kerry sat through a Hollywood performance where John Cougar Mellencamp sang a song entitled "Texas Bandito," where Meryl Streep caustically questioned President Bush's commitment to Jesus, where a comedian said "Latins for Republicans is like roaches for Raid," and where Whoopi Goldberg described the president—and his name—in pornographic terms. At the conclusion of this "Concert for John Kerry," the senator claimed that what was said there "conveyed the heart and soul of America." (Tapes of the event, though much requested, were never released.)
At that moment, American business, which often knows best what Americans want, think, and feel, got it. The Democratic Party did not. Immediately after this concert, Slim Fast fired Whoopi Goldberg as a spokeswoman. Slim Fast knew more about the American heart and soul than did the Kerry campaign or the DNC. And so their campaign went on and on—with record Democratic fundraising and with Democrats outspending Republicans in "527" attack ads questioning the president's military service as well as his honesty. Al Gore told large audiences that the president "betrayed this country," and compared the administration to Nazis ("digital brown shirts"). Howard Dean remained on the hustings throughout 2004, intoning that the president had "lied," and that the "Republicans are essentially the best propaganda machine since Lenin." John Kerry repeatedly said that President Bush lied about going to war. Tom Harkin called Dick Cheney a "coward." NAACP president Kweisi Mfume (who has since announced his resignation) said President Bush would take us back to the days of Jim Crow segregation. Max Cleland charged that President Bush was AWOL during Vietnam. Ted Kennedy (who had rescued Kerry from Howard Dean during the primaries by showing up to burnish Kerry's liberal credentials) said the Iraq war "was made up in Texas...the whole thing was a fraud," and that "Iraq was George Bush's Vietnam." The list goes on and on. High-ranking Republican spokesmen, by contrast, made no such ad hominem attacks. There was no Republican Michael Moore. The worst charge hurled against Kerry was that he was a flip-flopper, to which the Democrats replied, no, he was a consistent liberal. Or was that a moderate? At any rate, he flip-flopped consistently.
The country would not, and could not, swallow what Kerry represented nor what his supporters sold—not those words, not this kind of leftism. Kerry no more knew the heart and soul of this country than did his advisors. They tried to leverage unprecedented anger into a fury of anti-war sentiment, something that almost never works in wartime here. And they missed the "heart and soul" elsewhere: Bill Clinton (who knows something about how to run against Republicans) instructed Kerry to campaign in strong support of the initiatives against gay "marriage," but to no avail. Three days after the election, Clinton criticized Kerry for merely endorsing these initiatives "once or twice, instead of 3,000 times."
The Left argued—and has been arguing since the election—we know what this moral values thing is all about: that the right wing, and the Christian Right, had captured the Bush campaign. Many on the Left still cling to this notion. Bill Maher stated, after the election, that "the Christian Right is hijacking this country." Garry Wills wrote, "Where else do we find fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity?" Maureen Dowd, of theNew York Times, wrote: "W. ran a jihad in America so he can fight one in Iraq—drawing a devoted flock of evangelicals, or 'values voters,' as they call themselves, to the polls by opposing abortion, suffocating stem cell research, and supporting a constitutional amendment against gay marriage." In fact, what President Bush stood for, ran on, and won on is a center-right morality, which we might call common moral sense. America has not turned far-right. What the president stood for is mainstream. In this election, the voters affirmed both that the Left's political message does not resonate in America, and that the far Right does not govern America.
Moreover, President Bush did not manipulate "a devoted flock of evangelicals"—in fact, they were out in front of him and his campaign on many issues, and often frustrated over what they regarded as the White House's indecisiveness. To be sure, President Bush is conservative on many things, but his conservatism leaves plenty of room to his right. Yes, Bush drew the support of evangelical Christians and should have: he is deeply sympathetic to much that, rightly, troubles them. Yet evangelicals' support of him is not the biggest part of the electoral story, because Bush drew very large support from Catholics, and even raised his numbers among Jews (who gave him more support than to any Republican in four presidential elections—in fact, the Orthodox Jewish community gave him 69% of their vote). Plain numbers: Bush received just over 60 million votes; approximately 20 million of those votes came from evangelicals. Forty million came from other people.
Bush did not campaign vociferously on ending abortion; he campaigned against partial birth abortion (which Kerry supports, and a vast majority of Americans oppose). The president did not suffocate stem cell research; he was the first president to fund it, and then barred further federal funding of it. President Bush did support a constitutional amendment to bar gay marriage—but so did voters in every state where they could add such a ban to their state constitutions. In short, the president campaigned from the middle, or the middle-right, and he won.
A Moral Agenda
Having won a mandate for common moral sense, what will President Bush do with it? In his first press conference, he provided an initial outline of the agenda: "Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting and winning the war on terror." Is this a values agenda? Well it may not be the values agenda the religious Right would like to emphasize—and some have said so already—but it is a values agenda nonetheless. Social Security and tax reform do speak to family values—and morality. A robust reform of Social Security is long over-due, and President Bush is the first candidate to have the courage to speak about it and campaign on it. Also, for as long as I can remember, conservatives have looked to the tax code to support the American family, ranging from such measures as the elimination of the marriage penalty to the child tax credit.
I would like to see the president and his party build on these reforms. He should seek more and better school choice in the No Child Left Behind law. Currently, it allows only public-school choice; it should include private-school choice as well. We should move forward with a reauthorization of welfare reform featuring a strong marriage component and a renewed effort on faith-based initiatives. We should seek the defunding of Title X family planning—and instead, put more emphasis on abstinence programs for young people. We should fight a stronger and more public war on drugs. Perhaps we will need a renewed federal Defense of Marriage Act or Federal Marriage Amendment. And, last but not least, a vigorous backing of a constitutionalist federal judiciary. For better or worse (mostly, worse) Tocqueville was right: "There is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one." Ultimately, the courts must secure President Bush's domestic legacy. We have been too reticent for too long on court appointments. The president won the election; he should nominate strong federal judges, over and over again, and campaign for their approval, over and over again.
But there is more. We are fighting a war. The election revealed that the American people want a physical defense of the country as well as a moral defense—and they do not separate the two. Ronald Reagan upheld the defense of the country on a moral basis, as did Abraham Lincoln (and whose fervent opposition to slavery was based in moral conviction). The war on terrorism and the war in Iraq are not separate—and they are not separate from the great moral cause of our time: freedom versus slavery, democracy versus tyranny, civilization versus barbarism.
The American Mainstream
The reason all of these things are not severable is that they are all a function of what philosophers have called the moral point of view. And we have a president who has one.
On all these issues, we have a large, robust, and compelling agenda—a moral agenda—and, I might add, an eminently achievable agenda. Public opinion is everything, Lincoln observed, and this president now has a mandate based on public opinion. The time has come to pursue these goals with renewed energy from the executive branch. For this is a course of action resoundingly approved, not by extremists and radicals, but by a broad swath of Americans: the Right, the center Right, a little of the anti-terrorist center Left, and an awful lot of the center itself.
So, looking back at the election of 2004, we can say, with all due respect to William Butler Yeats, that the center can hold and is holding. This center—and the range of moral values it represents—is not the project of extremists, jihadists, or radicals. It is the project of us—our neighbors and our friends—and it was just spoken for by people all over this country, in every part of this country, and in every state of this country—be it red or blue.