TCS Daily

Misreading the Tea Leaves

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - November 12, 2004 12:00 AM

We aren't arguing anymore about who we should have as President for the next four years. Instead, we are arguing about the significance of President Bush's electoral victory. And we are having this argument because many of President Bush's opponents in the political and pundit classes -- having failed to deny him a second term -- are now bent on spinning his electoral victory to make it somehow seem less impressive and less consequential.

All of this spin is false and easily refutable. Let's examine how.

The President's Margin of Victory, and Its Legislative Consequences

Immediately after the election result became clear, Howard Dean -- remember him? -- commented on his blog that "more Americans voted against George Bush than any sitting president in history." Paul Krugman argued that if it weren't for 9/11, President Bush would never have been re-elected. E.J. Dionne claims that the President and his campaign "greatly increased conservative turnout and produced a country divided just their way," and in his column, launches in a series of speculative exercises designed to show that John Kerry coulda, shoulda, woulda won if only a few things were a different.

No one claims that President Bush won in any kind of landslide, but at the same time, he did get more votes in his favor than any other Presidential candidate in history and 3.6 million more votes than did Senator Kerry (a nice counterpoint to Dean's comment). George W. Bush is the first candidate to win a majority of the popular vote for President since his father did it 16 years ago. Additionally, the President's victory comes in an election which saw the most impressive voter turnout in 36 years, with over 120 million Americans -- nearly 60% of registered voters -- casting ballots. Going into the election, Democrats claimed to want a high turnout because they believed that would help them win. They got what they wanted in terms of voter turnout, but went down to defeat instead -- in both the Presidential race, and in congressional races, where Republicans increased their majorities in both the House of Representatives and in the Senate.

The Republican victory wasn't a landslide win. But it was a convincing one. President Bush's opponents ignore this at their peril. And if Bill Clinton's 1992 victory with a mere 43% of the vote could be interpreted as "a mandate" (and that was the claim from the Clintonites), then President Bush can be quite pleased with a popular vote win that is eight percentage points higher, and in an election with greater turnout than what was seen in 1992.

"Values" And Their Consequences

The President's critics have looked at exit polls and have argued that issues relating to "moral values" were the chief vote-getting issues for the President. Commenting on this, Krugman appears to read the "moral values" push behind the President's re-election as "opposition to abortion and gay rights (and, in the background, opposition to minority rights)." He tells us that the coalition of voters who voted for the President "deeply dislikes America as it is." By seeking to portray the President as a "radical," Krugman and others seek to stir up opposition to the President's second term. And all because of what exit polls purport to say about the motivating issues that drove the President's re-election.

Unfortunately for this line of argument, the exit polls are quite misleading, and contrary to the early conventional wisdom, it appears that terrorism -- not "moral values" -- was the key issue. Indeed, as Eugene Volokh makes clear, a more accurate grouping of the questions on the exit poll would push the importance of "moral values" down on the list of voter priorities.

Why is the "moral values" issue being pushed as the reason for the President's re-election? Maybe David Brooks -- who argues that some kind of face-saving excuse is needed for the losing side -- is right on the money. Whatever the case, the "moral values" explanation just does not wash upon closer inspection. This, of course, will not stop the President's opponents from pushing that explanation, even though some of those opponents freely admit that they would be lying if they did argue that "moral values" helped get out the vote for the Bush-Cheney ticket.

The Not-So-Grand Compromise

A third line of spin that has sprouted involves Democrats arguing that President Bush should somehow abandon his policy goals and come towards the Democrats on Capitol Hill. One of the chief proponents of this argument is Al Hunt, the columnist who lauds President Reagan as an example of a politician "moving to the center" on domestic and foreign affairs, and not claiming a mandate in the wake of a re-election victory.

Hunt's argument is undercut by the fact that Reagan did claim a mandate. In his first press conference after being re-elected, Reagan stated that "we're going to continue what we've been doing and, if need be, we'll take our case to the people" and that "I'm claiming that I think the people made it very plain that they approved of what we're doing. . . . And that's what we're going to continue to do" in response to questions about whether Reagan could claim a mandate.

Relatedly, Democrats claim that they won't just allow themselves to be "rolled over" by the Bush agenda. That's fine -- they can stick to their principles. No one suggests that Democrats should abandon their beliefs and simply rubber-stamp Administration initiatives. But the President's victory means that opposing his agenda carries more of an electoral risk for his putative opponents. If they want to take that risk, that is their business. They should be aware, however, that they may pay the price at the polls -- just as they did in 2002 and this year.

Democrats are understandably shell-shocked after their defeat. Just as understandably, they now seek to stake out their political territory so as to have a fighting chance at relevance during a second Bush Administration. Thus the current round of spin regarding the election results. But while the spin may be predictable, that doesn't mean it is correct. And if the Democrats continue to try to push a clearly implausible reading of the election results, they will find themselves perceived to be out of touch with the electorate -- just as they were this year.


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