TCS Daily

Lessons for Both Parties

By Todd Weiner - November 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: The author predicted a Bush victory before the election, saying it was "character and personality that will save Bush on Election Day."

The re-election of President Bush is seemingly inexplicable. During the course of Bush's presidency, America has lost 1.6 million jobs, the national Treasury, once bursting in revenue, is now flooded in red ink, and more than a thousand American soldiers have been killed in a pre-emptive war part of whose rationale has now been disproven.

What then explains Bush's triumph? The answer is that the President ran a marvelous campaign that appealed to the hopes, fears, and priorities of the average American. Senator Kerry, on the other hand, ran a middling campaign whose defeat proved it never understood the people it wished to represent. Bush's successful strategy can be divided into five sections, each of which offers an instructive lesson for both parties in the future.

Values Matter Most: According to exit polls, "moral values" was the most important issue for voters, and they favored Bush by a 4-1 margin. Democratic activists dismiss "moral values" as a codeword for "bigotry" and blame opposition to gay marriage as the unexpected factor that pushed Bush to victory. Some conservative Republicans, eager to inflame the Culture War, agree with that sentiment. This would be a harmful lesson for both parties to learn. The truth is that "moral values" is a fairly innocuous term. Many Americans understandably want to live in a traditional culture that teaches kids the difference between right and wrong, respect for parents, faith in God, love of country. President Bush, through both his words and deeds, has proven that he shares the traditional outlook of ordinary Americans, and wishes to defend it. Senator Kerry, with his never-ending nuance and sympathy for liberal interest groups, could never make that connection. The lesson for both parties is that Americans want a President who shares their moral outlook on the world. It's as simple as that.

Character Matters: A candidate's character and personality is at least as more important as where he stands on the issues. In spite of all the insults and accusations that have been hurled at Bush, the President continues to earn the respect of the American people. According to pre-election polls, voters said the statement "strong leader" applied to Bush, not Kerry, by a twenty-point margin. Voters also identified Bush as the candidate with "strong religious faith" by a near 4-1 margin over Kerry. In addition to respecting and admiring Bush, voters also liked the President on a personal level. By a 19-point margin, voters selected Bush as the candidate with "an appealing personality." The lesson is that Americans want a President who they can look up to and also feel comfortable with.

National Security Matters: For the first time since 1988, national security played a key role in a presidential campaign, and with the War on Terrorism likely to be a generational struggle, it should stay around for a while. As the President who had toppled the Taliban and created the Homeland Security Department, Bush had a natural advantage on this issue. Nevertheless, Kerry correctly believed that he could not defeat Bush unless he neutralized the President's advantage here. Despite Herculean efforts, however, the Massachusetts Senator could never convince voters that he was a credible Commander-in-Chief. There were two reasons for Kerry's failure. First, he possessed a 20-year voting record as one of the most dovish Senators on Capitol Hill. Second, Kerry continued to insist that America needed to pass some sort of "global test" before defending itself. This is anathema to the American people who share Bush's conviction that absolutely nothing should inhibit a President's ability to defend his country. On Election Day, 58% of all voters said they could trust Bush to handle terrorism; only 40% felt the same way about Kerry. Among voters who selected "terrorism" as their top issue, Bush crushed Kerry, 86-14%. The lesson is that a presidential candidate's words and actions must amply demonstrate that he will do everything -- absolutely everything -- to protect the American people. No exceptions.

The Economy Doesn't Matter: The economy in 2004 was neither good enough for President Bush to crow about, nor bad enough for Senator Kerry to base his candidacy on. Bush was smart to avoid economic issues whenever he could whereas Kerry probably wasted too much time trying to convince voters that the President had crippled the economy. Democratic analysts disagree, citing the 20% of voters who said the economy was their top issue, who broke for Kerry 80-18%. This is a misinterpretation, however, because that 20% is not a historically high figure. Around a fifth of voters always say the economy is their top concern, including 18% in 2000, when economic conditions were excellent. Moreover, these voters always break overwhelmingly for Democrats, regardless of which party is in office or the actual conditions of the economy. The likely explanation is that these voters are simply Democrats! In fact, when all voters were asked who would better handle the economy, Bush beat Kerry 49-45%. This proves that the economy wasn't a particularly salient issue for swing voters. The lesson is that in presidential politics, the economy is much less important than values and national security.

Iraq Will Matter in the Future: President Bush won re-election in spite, not because of, his handling of Iraq. On the eve of the Election, a majority of Americans said the war in Iraq was going "badly," the level of casualties in Iraq was "unacceptable," and we would be unable to "establish and maintain a stable, democratic government" in Iraq, according to separate surveys. This was the only issue that could have swung the election to Kerry. And yet Bush was not fatally damaged by the situation in Iraq. This is because Bush successfully blurred the issue of terrorism (i.e. the war against al-Qaeda and homeland security) with Iraq. For many Americans, Iraq became inseparable from the Global War on Terrorism, on which they largely approved of Bush's performance. Furthermore, Kerry himself was incoherent on Iraq. One week Kerry was in favor of the war; the next week he was against it. In addition, he could not articulate his own victory strategy, with the exception of his highly dubious proposal of an international summit. This seriously damaged Kerry's credibility with the American people. If Kerry had held a firm, unmistakable position on Iraq -- Bush's biggest liability -- he might have won the Election. Entering 2005, it will be insufficient for Bush to simply be less noxious than his opponent. The President's performance on Iraq will have to stand on its own. The lesson is that Bush will need to articulate and implement a clear plan for winning the peace and bringing American soldiers home. Otherwise, public disillusionment on Iraq could sink Bush's second term.

Todd Weiner works at Luntz Research Companies, a communications firm in Alexandria, Virginia.


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