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How Bush Really Won

I will use every asset at our disposal to protect the American people and one of the best assets we have is freedom! Freedom is powerful!

Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is the Almighty’s gift to everyone…. Iraq is still dangerous but Iraq will have free elections in January—think how far that country has come!

On good days and bad days, whether the polls are up or the polls are down, I am determined to protect the American people!

The Iraq war was not only irrevocably part of the war on terror—who could think, gazing at the car bombs and beheadings every night on television, that they were any different?—it had become a leading part of the ideological response to the threat of terror: a first step in the expansion of the holy cause of freedom. As Reagan had dared to go beyond staunch anticommunism and imagine a world after communism’s collapse, so Bush looked beyond the present chaotic world of terror to see a blessed land of freedom.6 (“In this election, my opponent has spent a lot of time talking about a day that is gone. I’m talking about the day that is coming.”) It was a striking vision, clear and absolutely simple to understand. And it linked, firmly and directly, the so-called “moral values” of justice, fairness, and the Almighty to the cause of national security, and specifically to the war on terror that the Bush people kept relentlessly at the campaign’s heart. “Terror,” “Iraq,” and “moral values,” supposedly separate “important issues,” had been seamlessly joined.

Of course whatever its virtues as a campaign theme, the picture the President offered was not especially “fact-dependent.” Many well-known facts—on which Kerry, in his campaign, had laid such stress—were either irrelevant to it (the missing weapons of mass destruction, which went unmentioned) or directly contradicted by it (the failure to demonstrate connections between Iraq and the attacks of September 11). But the facts did not matter—not necessarily because those in the stadium were ignorant of them, though some certainly were, but because the President was offering in their place a worldview that was whole, complete, comprehensible, and thus impermeable to statements of fact that clearly contradicted it. The thousands cheering around me in that Orlando stadium, and the many others who would come to support Bush on election day, faced a stark choice: either discard the facts, or give up the clear and comforting worldview that they contradicted. They chose to disregard the facts.

Two weeks before the election, after the Senate Intelligence Committee report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the Duelfer Report, and after intensive news coverage of the administration’s failure to find such weapons in Iraq, nearly three Bush supporters in four told pollsters they believed Iraq had either had weapons of mass destruction (47 percent) or had had a “major program” to develop them (26 percent). Nearly three in five said they believed that the widely publicized Duelfer Report, which directly contradicted this, had in fact confirmed it. Three in four believed that Iraq had either been directly involved in the September 11 attacks (20 percent) or had given al-Qaeda “substantial support” (55 percent), and nearly three in ten wrongly believed that the 9/11 Commission had confirmed that they had. Similar majorities believed that the President and his administration still publicly supported these positions.

Many of the Bush supporters I spoke to were educated, well-informed people. They watched the news and took pleasure in debating politics. And yet they clung to views about important matters of fact that were demonstrably wrong. Steven Kull, the public opinion expert at the University of Maryland who authored the study from which these numbers are drawn, acknowledges that although one reason they “cling so tightly to beliefs that have been so visibly refuted…is that they continue to hear the Bush administration confirming these beliefs,” the prevalence, and persistence, of these misperceptions is “probably not due to a simple failure to pay attention to the news.” Rather, Kull writes, “Bush supporters cling to these beliefs because they are necessary for their support for the decision to go to war with Iraq”:

Asked whether the US should have gone to war with Iraq if US intelligence had concluded that Iraq was not making WMD or providing support to al Qaeda, 58 percent of Bush supporters said the US should not have, and 61 percent assume that in this case the president would not have. To support the president and to accept that he took the US to war based on mistaken assumptions is difficult to bear, especially in light of the continuing costs in terms of lives and money. Apparently, to avoid this cognitive dissonance, Bush supporters suppress awareness of unsettling information.7

This analysis suggests the difficulties Kerry faced in pressing home his highly “fact-dependent” argument that the Iraq war was separate from the war on terror and thus a mistaken distraction from it. Not only did accepting the point require a good deal of sophistication and knowledge, not only did it seem to contradict the evidence on Americans’ television screens each night, which often showed vivid depictions of terrorism in Iraq; it also seemed to imply to some voters that they should take what must have seemed an unpatriotic position. For if they accepted the false pretenses on which the war had been based, how could they go on supporting it, as Kerry, somewhat illogically and even dishonestly, seemed to be asking them to do?

Those running the Bush campaign clearly counted on the talent and influence of impressive propagandists like Limbaugh, and the help they received from an often acquiescent mainstream press. More, they counted on the President’s reputation for forthrightness, together with the political folk wisdom that many people, particularly “during wartime,” believe “the man, not the fact.” When Bush, in full rhetorical flower in Tinker Field, declared to his delirious audience that “Americans need a president who doesn’t think terrorism is ‘a nuisance,’” my neighbor Ms. Richardson-Pinto nudged me with her elbow and shouted over the laughter and cheers, “Do you believe Kerry said that?” Actually, I shouted into her ear, Kerry hadn’t said that, and then I paraphrased for her the actual quotation:

We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance. As a former law enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution… [and] illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where…it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.8

Hardly exceptional; indeed, Bush himself had only weeks before said something very similar. Ms. Richardson-Pinto, a well-educated, worldly woman—a doctor, and a two-time Olympic gold medalist in women’s softball—listened to me intently, nodded politely, began to form a question, and then, thinking better of it, looked at me for a moment longer before turning back to the President. She’d had a choice what—or rather whom—to believe; and she’d made it.


Saddam would never have disarmed.

—George W. Bush, first presidential debate,September 30, 2004

Seven o’clock on the evening of Election Day and the office of the election supervisor in downtown Jacksonville was mobbed, encircled by a raggedy line of hundreds and hundreds of late voters. In the street in front an enormous crowd of Democrats chanted, cheered, and sang, filling every inch of space and spilling out into the streets. Car after car, horns blaring, made its way carefully through the crowd, the drivers leaning out to administer high fives and to cheer, and cheer again. When word of the early exit-poll numbers seeming to confirm an overwhelming Kerry victory swept through the crowd, hundreds broke into song, to the tune of the old civil rights classic, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”:

Ain’t gonna let nobody steal my vote
Steal my vote, steal my vote
Ain’t gonna let nobody steal my vote….
It had been Jacksonville where in 2000 the infamous “caterpillar ballot” had led officials to discard tens of thousands of votes, votes cast overwhelmingly by African-Americans. As I stood watching the dancing and the celebration—“We gonna elect one, not select one!”—the sense people had of justice finally being done was vivid. I had felt it all day as I went from polling place to polling place in the downtown neighborhoods of the city—they were overwhelmed with voters, and overwhelmed with a sense that a wrong would be righted.

What I didn’t find was any sense of strong support for John Kerry as a politician or a leader, or even a feeling of familiarity with him. The personality of Bush seemed vivid among voters, whether they admired him or hated him; the personality of Kerry was faint, indistinct, and where I found its mark most strongly was among those Bush voters who saw the Massachusetts senator, or the depiction of him that the Bush campaign had succeeded in creating, as a threat to their security. To counteract this Kerry would have had to become a known quality, trusted, familiar; but even after the hundreds of millions spent on advertising and his strong performance in the debates, for most voters he seemed a distant figure. He never entered that great stock company of celebrities—the “Oprah touring company”—that ordinary Americans welcome into their living rooms and believe they have somehow come to know. Love him or hate him, the President had long since taken his place as a recognizable, powerful personality in that company; John Kerry never did.

I had seen Kerry speak two nights before in Tampa, before a crowd fully as delirious as the one that had greeted George W. Bush the night before. Though the Kerry crowd was recognizably younger and, for lack of a better word, “hipper,” most of those present would not have seemed out of place at either event. Partly hidden behind a forest of yellow “Two More Days!” signs, Kerry, by far the tallest person on stage, stretched and shifted as he was introduced, raising and lowering himself on the balls of his feet: he was plainly exhausted. Nonetheless he gave a powerful, well-crafted speech, though built around the uninspired phrases “a fresh start” and “first we must choose.” And then he turned to Iraq:

The President tells us that in Iraq, his “strategy is succeeding….” But every day on our TV screens, we see the hard truths. We see the consequences of this President’s decision to rush to war without a plan to win the peace: the loss of over 1,100 of our brave men and women in uniform. A cost of $225 billion with billions more on the way. Entire regions controlled by insurgents and terrorists. By pushing our allies aside, George Bush’s catastrophic mismanagement of this war has left America to bear almost 90 percent of the costs and 90 percent of the coalition casualties. We relied on Afghan warlords instead of American troops to hunt down Osama bin Laden, and the man responsible for murdering more than three thousand Americans walked away…. On Tuesday, we have the opportunity to set a new course in Iraq…open up a new chapter in our relationship with the rest of the world… and do whatever it takes to defend America and keep our troops safe…. When I’m president, I will bring other nations to our side and train Iraqis so that we can succeed and bring our troops home. As president, I will fight a tougher, smarter, more effective war on terror. We will hunt down, capture, and kill the terrorists wherever they are. I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president.

Kerry’s indictment of Bush’s stewardship of the war was strong, but he offered little by way of an alternative; his “new course in Iraq” amounted to bringing “other nations to our side” to train Iraqis. He would “do whatever it takes to defend America”—a broad, empty assertion that depended entirely on the trust a prospective voter was willing to grant him. And though Kerry struggled to separate Iraq and the war on terror, not just the imagery of the war—the descent of Iraq into a kind of terrorism that, ironically enough, seemed to confirm the President’s insistence that it was in fact “the central front of the war on terror”—but Kerry’s own discussion of Iraq and terrorism only seemed to bring them together.

For Kerry, this proved fatal. If Bush had succeeded in joining Iraq and terrorism and then wrestling to the very center of the election his chosen question—whom do you trust to protect you and your family from terrorism?—he had also succeeded, for too many of those famous “swing voters,” in providing the answer. The exit polls make this clear: nearly six in ten voters said they trusted Bush to “handle terrorism.” Nearly six in ten said they did not trust Kerry to do the same.

Of course it is easy to say, as many have, that Kerry’s policy on Iraq and terrorism was inadequate or incoherent. It is much harder to say what that policy should have been. Kerry, it is true, did not prove himself a very creative or resourceful candidate, and the Bush campaign was ruthless and brilliant in seizing on his missteps—his mention of a “global test” for United States intervention abroad, for example, and his unfortunate statement that “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it”—and using them to color in vivid tones the picture they wanted to paint of the senator.9 Kerry gave them a good deal of help, particularly by focusing on Vietnam, and attempting to make his heroic service as a naval officer there a central part of his campaign while avoiding discussion of his more controversial leadership in the antiwar movement after he returned. The so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, incensed by the antiwar Kerry, did great damage to the reputation of heroic warrior Kerry, and thereby did much to bolster the point that the Bush campaign, with the help of tens of millions of dollars in television and radio ads, had sought to drive home to American voters: that Kerry was inauthentic, untrustworthy, and “unfit to lead.”

But Kerry’s mistakes, however costly, in fact concealed a deeper problem, which was that Democrats themselves, haunted by the traditional charge of “weakness on national security” (which of course helped lead to Kerry’s nomination), were deeply divided on what should be done about the Iraq war, with as many favoring withdrawal as not.10 This is not surprising: the war itself, a costly, tangled, unending mess, admits of no obvious solution. The war may well be President Bush’s greatest wound; but for candidate Bush the ability to depict Iraq as “the central front of the war on terror” and trumpet his willingness to confront the war and “stay the course” to victory was an audacious and astonishing act of political legerdemain. He took what looked to be his greatest weakness and made it his opponent’s.

Kerry might have done better to declare early on that Iraq and the war on terror could no longer be separated, and to argue, forcefully and consistently, that Bush had conducted both incompetently—so incompetently, in fact, that four more years of his leadership would put Americans at ever greater risk. But to have been convincing, such a strategy, at least implicitly, would have meant accepting the necessity of going to war in Iraq—a position that many committed Democratic voters strongly disputed and that Kerry’s own past statements tended to contradict. And it would have meant demonstrating the kind of single-mindedness, relentlessness, and rigor that the Bush campaign managed but the Kerry forces never did. Either way, as long as Bush was able to succeed in melding Iraq and the war on terror and placing them firmly at the center of the campaign, Kerry faced an incumbent “war president” who, whatever his missteps, Americans would be hesitant to abandon—without a very good reason for doing so. Kerry never produced that reason.

At about half past eight, as I stood amid the roiling sea of jubilant Democrats outside that election supervisor’s office in downtown Jacksonville, I began to hear, through the civil rights songs and the laughter and cheers, a distant, booming, amplified chant. One by one people in the crowd before me heard it, and began turning to look down the street whence the chanting came, and then to look at one another. The voices grew louder and louder, and finally we saw their source: a group of twenty or so young men—they looked like football players—led by a beefy fellow holding high a blue Bush/Cheney sign, and chanting through a megaphone in a deep baritone:

Bush Won the State! Bush Won the State! Bush Won the State!

The dream of a Democratic victory had been fueled by the enormous turnout and by a handful of faulty exit polls. Everyone had believed it, even those distinctly downcast Republicans I’d visited at their Jacksonville headquarters earlier that afternoon. But the dream had ended.

The Democrats had come remarkably close. They had matched the Republicans in fund-raising dollar for dollar and had mounted an unprecedented “ground game.” On election day they managed the impressive feat of bringing eight million more voters to the polls than they had four years before. But the Republicans managed to bring in eleven million additional voters. George W. Bush, having gained half a million fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000, defeated John Kerry by three million votes.11

Still, the victory was “narrow but clear,” as William Kristol described it, with candor rare among Republicans after the election. For all the talk of “moral values,” had 60,000 Ohioans made a different choice on election day, we would now be discussing the unpopularity of the Iraq war and the President’s failed economic policies. After his narrow but clear victory, George W. Bush remained a popular leader promoting unpopular policies. And though he managed to convince enough Americans that Iraq was “the central front in the war on terror,” the truth remains that he has saddled himself and the country he leads with a worsening, increasingly unpopular shooting war that offers no obvious means of escape.

Now he faces a newly emboldened set of claimants. Though several million more evangelical voters turned out in 2004, and thus were critical to Bush’s victory, they do not seem to have formed a higher percentage of Republican voters than they had four years before.12 Still, having accounted, in their increased numbers, for a third of Bush’s margin of victory, the evangelicals unquestionably form the Republican Party’s most reliable and aggressive base of supporters. Their leaders have been quick and aggressive in claiming full credit for the triumph and the press has been happy to play along. As so often in politics, the appearance, through repetition, becomes its own reality.

Leaders like the unabashedly direct Reverend Bob Jones III now demand, in the name of moral values and the political redemption they claim to have brought the President, that Bush “pass legislation defined by Biblical norms” and that he “leave an imprint of righteousness upon this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God.” This is a tall order, and one fraught, like the war, with considerable political peril—from moderate voters, who, for example, support outlawing “partial-birth abortion” but oppose outlawing abortion itself; and even, perhaps, from Democrats who may one day come to focus on what they have gained in this election rather than what they have lost. After all the recriminations and all the analyses of how the party must change, the fact remains that the Democrats came very close to bringing off an almost unprecedented achievement: turning out an incumbent president in a time of war. They failed, but not entirely; they now confront a narrowly reelected president, encumbered with a grim and intractable war, constrained by a huge deficit of his own creation, and faced with increasingly extreme demands that will be satisfied only at great political cost.

—December 15, 2004


Bush’s Victory: Second Thoughts March 10, 2005

  1. 7

    See Steven Kull et al., The Separate Reality of Bush and Kerry Supporters (PIPA/Knowledge Networks, October 21, 2004), p. 13.

  2. 8

    See Matt Bai, “Kerry’s Undeclared War,” New York Times Magazine, October 10, 2004.

  3. 9

    See especially “How He Did It,” Newsweek, November 15, 2004, p. 70, for an excellent account of the Bush campaign’s handling of the $87 billion gaffe.

  4. 10

    See, among others, Ron Brownstein, “Kerry Feels Squeeze on Iraq Policy,” Los Angeles Times, May 27, 2004. As Brownstein points out, polls had shown nearly half of Democratic voters favoring immediate withdrawal, a position that, if adopted, would likely have doomed Kerry’s candidacy.

  5. 11

    Half of those votes came from the President’s loyal supporters in the “deep red” states—especially Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee—and a third from stronger support for Bush in the deep blue states, especially New York and New Jersey. The remainder came from the so-called purple states, and half of these from Florida—where the President, with a spectacular effort to register new voters in the outer suburbs, increased his margin from 537 to more than 370,000.

  6. 12

    Much less noticed, and in many ways more dramatic, was the upsurge in Catholics voting for Bush, which was a true shift from four years ago. Kerry, a Catholic, received 5 percent fewer Catholic votes than Al Gore, a Southern Baptist, and these votes were critical in several swing states, especially Ohio, where 55 percent of Catholic voters cast their ballots for Bush. According to Sidney Blumenthal, who reported these figures, the reason can be traced to the aggressive position that many in the Catholic hierarchy took against John Kerry. With the Catholic Church in America “in crisis,” writes Blumenthal, “electing a liberal Catholic as president would have been a severe blow” to the Church and its conservative leadership. Because of this, Kerry faced aggressive opposition from many in the hierarchy, including some bishops who openly denounced the candidate and threatened to deny him communion or even to ex-communicate him. See Sidney Blumenthal, “The Lowest Ignorance Takes Charge,” The Guardian, November 11, 2004.

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