Surprise, surprise! Character and moral values count. One of these days I will learn to have more confidence in the judgment of the American voter. On the eve of the election, I was very concerned that the electorate was about to set aside its natural conservatism and basic value judgments and be fooled again by an opportunistic charlatan. My thinking was that a country that can elect a Bill Clinton twice could certainly elect a John Kerry. O ye of little faith! Obviously I had an unwarranted lapse of it, because the American people, in their largest turnout in history, penetrated the façade and made the final determination that, particularly in a period of crisis, character and conviction matter most, and voted their deepest held values.
Contrary to most analyses, which placed the war and the economy as the top issues for voters, both were edged out by moral values, and of the 22% of voters who emphasized these, Bush won 80% (85% in Ohio!). In fact, in retrospect, it can now be said that Kerry lost this race the night he attended the big Hollywood celebrity Bush bashing in New York, featuring Whoopi Goldberg and friends, and announced afterward that their presentation represented “the heart and soul of America”. And don’t forget the debt owed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which handed Bush a big wedge issue with its decision imposing gay marriage on the state. Not to mention Michael Moore, the poster boy for backlash from the cultural traditionalists. The bottom line here is that the left just doesn’t get it—in determination of values, liberals emphasize the moral obligations of society, while conservatives reject this view in favor of personal morality and the obligations of the individual. Tom Friedman frets that this election not only reflects a disagreement over what we should be doing, it reflects big differences in what America is. I have news: that’s what elections are about. At this point, the Democrats have ceded to Republicans the language and habits of the moral and spiritual sources of American public life, particularly those informed by religion. And there is more to come, because this phenomenon, as much as anything else, has resulted in a structural shift in party registration, from a 20-point Democrat advantage to a 37-37% tie in a generation.
Beyond the culture war, the election was a referendum on Bush and the Bush Doctrine, and here it is not an exaggeration to say that Kerry was almost irrelevant. Whatever the misgivings and disagreements over the pursuit and conduct of the war in Iraq, and there are many even among Bush’s staunchest supporters, the American people were unwilling to return to the appeasement of liberal internationalism and the “nuanced” approach to the war on terror and Islamofascism.
A final point on tactics: I thought I would never see an election that turned on voter turnout won by Republicans. They have just never been as good at it as Democrats. Congratulations again to Karl Rove and the masterful organization that out-registered and out-hustled the vaunted Democratic machine in almost every precinct and overcame the longest and most vicious attack against an incumbent in recent memory, which was aided and abetted by almost every mainstream media outlet.
In a word—enormous. It is as big a watershed as any election at least since 1980, when we can only shudder to think of what a Carter re-election would have meant. Think now what the election of John Kerry would have meant—in terms of its messages to our allies and our enemies abroad, in terms of economic and trade policy, the direction of the judiciary, the restructuring of Social Security, entrepreneurship, tax policy, tort reform, not to mention again the cultural issues that drive policy, and on and on. There were big differences at stake here, more so even than in the days of Clinton, because, as duplicitous as he was, at least he was a New Democrat, shamelessly willing to “triangulate” with the center-right on such issues as trade and welfare reform, whereas Kerry and his primary support base were clearly from the Old Democrat mold of internationalist appeasement abroad, big government and one-size-fits-all solutions to domestic problems, protectionist trade policies, and pandering to the wide range of “victims” groups and their special pleaders through their allies in the plaintiffs bar.
Of course, the biggest implication is likely to be the vindication of the Bush Doctrine, which is the boldest and most significant transformation of foreign policy since Reagan dumped containment and detente as the primary instruments of restraining the Soviet Union and decided to win the Cold War. A victory by Kerry would have meant a major course change, not necessarily in the short term in Iraq, but rather in a gradual return to the mindset of conducting the war on terror—defensively as a homeland security issue and offensively as a law enforcement and intelligence gathering function primarily carried out by international agencies, now popularly known as the “September 10th” approach. Whatever your sentiments about the implications of some of the Wilsonian aspects of the idealism embedded in Bush’s worldview, this reversal of foreign policy under Kerry would have been a disaster for America and the world.
“There’s an old saying: Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks.”—George W. Bush in his acceptance speech on November 2, 2004.
What a striking contrast is this comment to what I can imagine Bill Clinton might have said in similar circumstances. This struck me as characteristic of Bush, the man—comfortable about who he is, humble about his capacities, confident in the sources of his strength, and resolute about his mission.
In the days since the election, we have been immersed by the analysts in the notion of Bush’s responsibility to unite the “deeply divided country, “reach out” to his political opponents, “move toward the center” to govern, in other words, concede ground to the opposition on many of the issues on which he has just won the election. Not a word yet about any responsibility on the part of the defeated party to make similar gestures. I am again reminded of John F. Kennedy’s remark on the day after his election in 1960, an election, incidentally, that was much closer and, in fact, was probably stolen: “The margin of victory was narrow, but the responsibility is clear”. After all, Bush is the first President since his father to receive over 50% of the popular vote, and only two Democrats since Franklin Roosevelt have done so. So what else is new about close elections? There was, or should have been, no doubt about Bush’s priorities nor how he would pursue them upon re-election, so anyone who voted, and more did than in any election in U. S. history, cannot plead ignorance. Also, as I have quoted Henry Kissinger many times, leadership is about taking people from where they are to where they have never been, and I would add that it is also about defining the governing priorities, not waiting to be told what they are. It has been noted this week that this election was the first truly “us” versus “them” election. Well, guess what? “Us” won. But don’t think for a moment that “them” will abandon their causes, miss any opportunities to fight back with every tactical and political resource, obstruct where possible, and give Bush more than he wants in terms of a “loyal opposition” to his policy priorities.
Having said all that, Bush was on point in his post-election press conference that he will “reach out” to the reasonable opposition who want to assist with his mission, but that he feels vindicated in this mission by the election results and will use the resulting political capital to pursue it, and so he should. Does that mean “mandate”? What an overworked and misunderstood term, but this election comes as close to one as any in this century since FDR. So what does this mean in terms of his immediate priorities? Aside from the war, at least six:
· Move quickly to document the “ownership society” with Social Security Personal Retirement Accounts, universal Health Savings Accounts, making the income tax cuts and estate tax elimination permanent, and replacing John Snow as Secretary of the Treasury with someone who identifies with entrepreneurship, such as Don Evans or Steve Forbes.
· Revive “compassionate conservatism” by aggressively moving to voucherize the faith-based initiatives he championed early in his first term.
· Push for early Senate approval of major reform of Federal tort law to attack the “tort tax” on small business and innovation.
· Take education accountability to the next level beyond the No Child Left Behind Act by aggressively supporting comprehensive school choice, beginning with voucherizing Title I funding.
· Return to the Reagan motto of “government is too big and spends too much”, beginning with an early and significant veto of excess discretionary domestic spending.
· Send the distinct message that judicial appointments will be consistent with his worldview and that Senate obstruction will not be tolerated (he could, but probably won’t, start here with signaling his disapproval of Arlen Specter as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee). And, by the way, no David Souters!
Longer term, it obviously should go without saying that he should complete the mission in Iraq and deal decisively with the nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea, as well as keep the pressure on the Saudis and Syrians in order to further transform the Middle East and encourage the responsible Muslim community around the world to engage themselves in the reformation and/or elimination of their fascist components.
A large agenda, but, after all, a President’s political capital is to be spent, not saved.