Viewpoint -- Responses to the election
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Issue Date:  November 19, 2004

The public found Bush a safer choice

'Prudent, principled and discriminating voters' delivered a clear result


I thought what happened the first Tuesday in November was that George Bush, who got my vote, beat John Kerry by a close but convincing margin in a U.S. presidential campaign. But to judge by the reaction since then, it appears that I am suffering from near-terminal naiveté induced by living for over two decades in a provincial city, Washington.

By Wednesday morning we had a president-elect who would continue to pursue terrorism vigorously and, though he might not make much headway against abortion, would be unlikely to appoint pro-choice justices to the Supreme Court. He might also hold the line on gay marriage and civil unions (Bush made ambiguous noises in the last weeks of the campaign that seemed to favor civil unions; those of us who supported him and participated in the internal battles going on in Washington knew that the pro-traditional marriage groups had to force the White House to do anything at all on the issue.)

But it seems I Have Missed the Point -- in fact several points. My friend E.J. Dionne, a liberal Catholic and genial man, sputtered in anger on NPR Wednesday evening that Bush had used gay bashing as a divisive issue -- E.J. tends to see everything Bush does as willfully intended to divide us. But I’ve always thought that the Massachusetts Supreme Court, by a bare one-vote majority, did far more in that line by forcing the gay marriage question on the whole country, with disastrous results for Democrats. (Bush gained votes even in Massachusetts this year over 2000.) But no one spoke of the court’s divisiveness after the election, only that the people were “not yet ready.” If the Democratic National Committee is still thinking within these limits four years from now, I’m afraid E.J. Dionne will have to step up his blood pressure medicine.

At least he offered a political explanation for a politician phenomenon. Garry Wills, another Catholic intellectual/journalist, immediately proclaimed in Wednesday’s New York Times that it was the “end of the Enlightenment,” because more Americans believe in the Virgin Birth than in Darwin. Someone will have to help me here because I thought the truly progressive elements among our intellectual elites were in favor of deconstructing the Enlightenment for its Eurocentrism, patriarchy and thin rationalism. Besides we don’t “believe” in Darwin. There’s evidence, good or bad, for various parts of the theory. But most Americans reject the view that materialism should trump our moral and spiritual beliefs. Garry Wills and many like him think Bush a dangerous bumbler. Could he really have shifted the whole course of Western thought because of a few percent of American voters?

Then there was Hollywood. I suppose it’s a shock when multimillionaire celebrities whose faces are known the world over have no discernible effect after going door-to-door in a state like Ohio. One prominent Hollywood figure asked whether there would be a return of “blacklists” now. I always detect a whiff of hope that there will be in such expressions, perhaps precisely because the lords and ladies of popular culture seem to contribute nothing but money to our political discourse. An old-style McCarthy hearing in a Senate Committee might give them a chance to dramatize their self-image as possessed of special insight into the conditions of the country and compassion toward the poor.

What we really know about the election falls, I believe, into a few far less overheated categories. First, Americans simply decided that, all things considered, Bush could be better trusted than Kerry to keep the country safe. The candidates split popular support on who was best for the economy, and offset one another’s strengths on other issues. To my mind, security was the single most important factor, an intuition that probably cannot be analyzed by surveys, however sophisticated, because it involves many intangibles.

Bush did appeal overwhelmingly to people of conservative religious values. Some cautions about the “values” vote have rightly been raised by Andy Kohut of the Pew Center. It was too broad an exit-poll question to tell us much. But 80 percent of the 20 percent of voters who thought “values” the most important matter voted for Bush. This must mean something. Bush also gained votes in 2004 in states he and all modern Republicans have lost for some time.

Part of this result was good organization, but something else was going on as well. George Marlin, author of the fine historical study The American Catholic Voter, has analyzed the numbers and found that in 2000, Bush won 51 percent of the Catholic vote in Ohio. This time out he took 56 percent. In Wisconsin, Bush won virtually all the majority Catholic counties but lost the majority Lutheran areas. In Pennsylvania, the central counties that contain many Slavic Catholics went Republican. All this seems to suggest that states or areas where older-style Catholics predominate were attracted by some combination of qualities in Bush that made such people Reagan Democrats in the past. By the way, this also seems to be the reason why Bush made large percentage jumps among blacks and, even more astonishing, among Hispanics (he earned 44 percent of that vote nationwide).

So the explanation for the 2004 results is both simpler and different from what we have been hearing from the breathless. The wicked racists, theocrats and gay bashers of the heartland (as seen from Manhattan and Hollywood) did not put an inept and arrogant Texan back in the White House. Rather, a strong combination of prudent, principled and discriminating voters -- who understand themselves differently than do the liberals (“They are voting against their own self-interest”) -- created the perfect storm that defeated a weak Democrat mandarin with no real populist instincts. In a year of two less-than-stellar candidates, the American voters felt comfortable enough with the incumbent and the job he is doing, and threatened enough by radical social initiatives, that they delivered us a complicated but, in the end, clear result.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington. His book The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History is soon to be reissued in paperback.

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 2004

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