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How Bush Really Won


I have won what I call political capital and now I intend to spend it.

—George W. Bush, November 3, 2004

Driving north from Tampa on Florida’s Route 75 on November 1, as the battle over who would hold political power in America was reaching a climax but the struggle over what that battle meant had yet to begin, I put down the top of my rented green convertible, turned the talk radio voices up to blaring, and commenced reading the roadside. Beside me billboards flew past, one hard upon another, as if some errant giant had cut a great deck of cards and fanned them out along each shoulder. Hour by hour, as the booming salesman’s voice of proud Floridian Rush Limbaugh rumbled from the radio, warning gravely of the dangers of “voting for bin Laden” (“Haven’t you noticed that bin Laden is using Democratic talking points?“), and other ominous voices reminded listeners of the “hundreds of votes” Senator Kerry cast “against our national defense” (“In a time of terror, when our enemies are gathering…can we afford to take that risk?“), I watched rush by, interspersed with the blaring offers of “Florida Citrus! One Bag $1!” and “Need Help With Sinkholes?,” a series of perhaps fifty garish signs announcing an approaching “Adult Toy Café!” and “Adult Toy Extravaganza!” and then “We Bare All!” and finally, the capper, “All Nude—Good Food—Truckers Welcome!”

It wasn’t long before this billboard parade had acquired its stark spiritual counterpoint—“Jesus Is Still the Answer!”—and by the time I reached the promised “extravaganza”—a sad and windowless two-room shack just off the highway, smaller than most of the signs advertising it—I found, standing just down the road from the pathetic little house of sin, a resplendent white church more than twice its size. In the world of American hucksterism, the sin may be the draw but the payoff’s always in redemption.

This was perhaps thirty-six hours before an army of self-interested commentators, self-appointed spiritual leaders, and television pundits hot for a simple storyline had seized on the answers to a clumsily posed exit poll question—more than one respondent in five, offered seven choices, had selected “moral values” as their “most important issue”—and used those answers to transform the results of the 2004 election into a rousing statement of Americans’ disgust with abortion, promiscuity, R-rated movies, gay marriage, late-night television, and other “Hollywood-type” moral laxity. Some, like the Reverend Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, wrote the President with admirable directness to remind him what the election meant, and what he now owed:

In your re-election, God has graciously granted America—though she doesn’t deserve it—a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate…. Don’t equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ….

Undoubtedly, you will have opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the Congress in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and limited government. You have four years—a brief time only—to leave an imprint for righteousness upon this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God….

If you have weaklings around you who do not share your biblical values, shed yourself of them.

And yet the voters of Union County, Florida’s smallest, whom I found crowding the election supervisor’s office in tiny Lake Butler, seemed unaware that they had been impelled to vote by a newfound quest for redemption. In Lake Butler, turnout was higher than anyone could remember; in Union County, voter registration had risen by 25 percent over 2000, when I had last visited.1 But none of the voters who spoke to me there volunteered a word about “moral values.” Their answers tended to be much more concrete. “It’s because of 9/11—you know, because of the terrorism,” said Babs Montpetit—a.k.a. Miss Babs, election supervisor of Union County since 1985. “Because of the terrorism people are afraid not to vote.” Through the window behind her I could see Lake Butler’s main street, with its scattering of stores and bars—a tiny, isolated place, with barely seven thousand registered voters, far from any major city. Why should its citizens worry about terrorism? “Why, who could have expected that would happen, that business in New York?” Miss Babs asked me in return, leaning forward and lowering her voice. “You just don’t know.”

Back in the car, I turned on the radio to find the Florida news feed, which led with this story:

A suspicious package that seemed to be vibrating forced the closing of the State Board of Elections today. The parcel, it turned out, was an ordinary package that happened to have been placed next to an air conditioner, the breeze from which accounted for the apparent vibrating action….

This embarrassing incident, which in other times might have been treated as a humorous item about the haplessness of government officials, was reported in dead seriousness: a dark dispatch from the front lines. As I left Lake Butler, stepping on the accelerator, I turned the radio up and the air around me filled again with the booming voice of Rush Limbaugh, in full and impressive rant:

Osama bin Laden cannot launch an attack on the United States of America. Osama bin Laden can only deliver a tape, and on that tape, bin Laden appeals to the very appeasers in this country who would allow him to gain strength by agreeing with what he says and voting for the man who is being quoted by bin Laden. John Kerry, as much as Michael Moore, was quoted by Osama bin Laden in that video that we all saw…. Michael Moore is not on the ballot; John Kerry is. Osama bin Laden parroting John Kerry in his tape on Friday. We have a unique responsibility to lead the world in confronting and defeating this evil threat….

Returning to the days of appeasement, trying to meet a “global test” of world opinion, ignoring threats from hostile nations and groups is a deadly mistake we simply can’t afford to make…. The Democrat Party in this country is eager to point to the things bin Laden said and suggest that he is right—a man who happily murdered three thousand Americans and is eager to do so over and over and over again! You say, “Rush, I haven’t heard the Democrats say that.” Oh, you can find it on their Web sites. You can find people who are going to vote for John Kerry who have said this. You can find people on various Democrat Web sites who are excited bin Laden said what he said. They’re hoping for an Osama smackdown of Bush, if I may quote one of the things I saw.

Interspersed with Limbaugh’s extraordinarily fluid and persuasively deceptive tirade—heard, according to his home station in Sacramento, by “nearly 20 million people over 600 stations”—came the political advertisements, one after another, which turned skillfully around a concentrated version of the same plotline: First, the threat America faces today is as great as any in the country’s history. Second, that threat makes this election “the most important in history,” because if Americans make “the wrong choice” they could make themselves and their families more vulnerable. Third, therefore, Americans must vote, and must make “the right choice.” Fear is joined skillfully to risk: a risk that is personal and looming, and—most important—that could very well increase if the election goes the wrong way.

The script of the famous “Wolves” television ad, with its simple image of a pack of ravenous, circling carnivores readying for the attack, embodied this plotline in perhaps its purest form:

In an increasingly dangerous world…. Even after the first terrorist attack on America…John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America’s intelligence operations. By six billion dollars…. Cuts so deep they would have weakened America’s defenses. And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.

A vote for Bush is a vote to stave off that weakness. More important, a failure to vote could make way for that “weakening of America’s defenses.” As I headed to Jacksonville, grave voices from the radio warned again and again of what was at stake:

John Kerry. The most liberal man in the Senate. The most liberal person to ever run for president. He voted to cut our military…. To severely cut our intelligence agencies…. He voted for higher taxes 350 times…. And now he wants to be our President…. We live in a dangerous world that requires strong and steady leadership. John Kerry is a risky choice for America…a risk we cannot take.

This rhetoric of risk carries forward a narrative that Republicans began shaping soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that came boldly to the fore as a political strategy the following May, when Vice President Cheney declared that the statements of several Democratic senators, who had rather timidly questioned some of the decisions made in conducting the war in Afghanistan, were “unworthy of national leaders in a time of war.” Though this bold shot across the bow essentially put an end to any overt Democratic criticism of the administration on the conduct of the war on terror, Republicans clearly realized that when it came to terrorism and national security, as Karl Rove observed during a speech to the Republican National Committee in January 2002, they could “go to the country on this issue, because [Americans] trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.”

That autumn Republicans triumphed in the midterm elections, largely because they effectively exploited Americans’ apparent willingness to believe that the Republicans could better protect the country. This strategy was displayed most dramatically in Saxby Chambliss’s victory over the incumbent Max Cleland in the Senate race in Georgia, in which the challenger portrayed Cleland, a highly decorated veteran who had lost three limbs in Vietnam, as an ally of bin Laden. Though the claims were obviously trumped up—they rested on the fact that Cleland had not instantly voted for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security—the images of Cleland’s and bin Laden’s faces side by side in effect doomed the incumbent.

The attacks of September 11 restored to Republicans their traditional political advantage in matters of “national security” and “national defense”—an advantage the party had lost with the end of the cold war—and Republicans capitalized on that advantage, not only by running President Bush as “a war president,” as he repeatedly identified himself, but by presenting a vote for John Kerry—whom the Republicans succeeded in defining (with a good deal of help from the Swift Boat Veterans, and from Kerry himself) as indecisive, opportunistic, and untrustworthy—as a vote that was inherently, dangerously risky. The emphasis placed on Bush’s much-promoted personal strengths—decisiveness, determination, reliability, transparency—served to base his candidacy at once on “moral values” and on “national security,” in effect making possession of the first essential to protect the second. Bush’s decisiveness was put forward as the flip side of Kerry’s dangerous vacillation, the answer to the threat of weakness Kerry was alleged to pose. This equation was dramatized, perfected, and repeated, with much discipline and persistence, in thousands of advertisements, speeches, and “talking heads” discussion programs on conservative networks, especially Fox. (In Lake Butler, Miss Babs’s husband, she told me, “watches only Fox News. He believes all the other channels are propaganda.”) Despite all the talk about “moral values,” the 2004 election turned on a fulcrum of fear.

Republican Presidents Reelected During the Last Hundred Years
PresidentPopular VoteElectoral Vote
1904Theodore Roosevelt17%196
1956Dwight D. Eisenhower16%384
1972Richard M. Nixon23%503
1984Ronald Reagan18%512
2004George Bush2%34

  1. 1

    See The Road to Illegitimacy: One Reporter’s Adventures in the 2000 Florida Vote Recount (Melville House, 2004), based on “The Road to Illegitimacy,” The New York Review, February 22, 2001.

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