Moral Values in the 2004 Election

The exit polls made election night excessively cruel and especially so for supporters of presidential candidate Senator John Kerry.  Early in the afternoon, exit polls suggested that Kerry would be a big winner. The stock market plummeted on the news and Kerry supporters were giddy in anticipation.  Some were already planning strategies for running against Senator John McCain in 2008. Bush supporters were gloomy, until about 7:00 p.m. when the actual election returns started to trickle in.  When the exit polls were finally tabulated using data for the entire day, they began to approach the actual election returns, but the damage was already done.  Kerry supporters were forced to suffer an even more frustrating loss than they would have endured had the exit polls not been so initially misleading.

While exit polls may not be the best real-time predictor of election outcomes, they did offer an interesting post-election insight into the motivation and demographics of voters.  Exit polls clearly showed an increase in voting by Evangelical Christians and that the issue of “moral values” played a more important role in voters’ minds than most observers had anticipated before the election.  However, to many the term “moral values” is code-language for only a pro-life position or for the notion that the definition of marriage ought not to be extended to same sex partners.  While it is true that these issues are important, the thesis here is the moral values that defined this election were substantially broader.  Many of those who were citing “moral values” as an issue were also reacting to vitriolic rhetoric and mean-spirited campaign of the Democrats and others on the Left.  The thesis here is that Americans were also rejecting the tone and tenor of the campaign.

Consider the following incendiary rhetoric by major players in the Democratic Party:

  • Senator Edward Kennedy claimed that the War in Iraq was a “fraud” that was “made up in Texas.”
  • Governor Howard Dean said,  “John Ashcroft is not a patriot” and  lent credence to the notion Bush may have know about the 9/11 attacks in advance.
  • General Wesley Clark ran for the Democratic nomination suggesting that as far as Christianity goes “there’s only one party that lives that faith in America, and that’s our party, the Democratic Party.”
  • Vice-President Al Gore shouted to a partisan crowd that Bush “betrayed us.”
  • Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe asserted that President Bush went AWOL while in the Texas National Guard.

At the same time, propagandist Michael Moore produced the movie Fahrenheit 9/11 about which the Left-leaning Christopher Hitchens colorfully averred that “to describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental.”  While there is always extreme rhetoric by partisans on both sides, the fact that Michael Moore’s movie was embraced and even believed by otherwise reasonable human beings is a measure of the deep irrational antipathy on the Left for Bush.  In this election, America rejected this antipathy in voting for Bush, much like they rejected Republican antipathy for former President Bill Clinton.

Now many of my Liberal friends will reject the notion that the electorate was reacting against the spiteful anti-Bush rhetoric.  After all, they will assert, one could point out intemperate statements made by some on the Right.   However, you do not generally find such statements made by Republican Party leadership, nor did Republicans never come close to matching the same enormous investment or negative advertising by “527” groups.  The fact that most people who voted for Bush voted positively for Bush, while about half of the Kerry supporters were simply voting against Bush is an empirical reflection of the pervasive negativity in the Democratic presidential campaign.  It is hard to find Republicans who hate Kerry, while it is unfortunately much too easy to find Democrats who hate Bush.

Apparently, the election did little to smooth over differences and this anti-Bush antipathy on the Left will likely continue to encumber their political agenda.  Paul Krugman, columnist for the New York Times, vomited up his angry bile the day after the election charging that Bush is “a radical — the leader of a coalition that deeply dislikes America.” However, fellow travelers on the Left reveal those who are really angry with Americans.  Normally thoughtful and polite columnist E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post could not help but write, “We are alarmed that so many of our fellow citizens could look the other way and not hold Bush accountable…”  Jane Smiley in Slate worries that Americans may not really be up to this Democracy thing. For Smiley, “The election results reflect the decision of the right wing to cultivate and exploit ignorance in the citizenry.”  One is not likely to garner votes in the future, if you do not respect voters.

Even if they are able to tone done their angry rhetoric, it will be difficult for those on the Left to deal with their deficiency on the issue of “moral values.”  Some of the Left mistakenly believe that “moral values” is only a phrase used to hide bigotry and intolerance. When seriously confronted with the “moral values” issue, others on the Left defensively argue that the minimum wage or health care and other “social justice” issues represent moral values. They are correct that there is a moral component to these issues. However, the Left has lost the vocabulary and the temperament to deal with moral values.  Values imply judgments about right and wrong, and many on the Left have given up the notion that any ideas of right and wrong can be imposed by government.  After throwing the armaments of moral authority and the ability to speak of moral obligations into the bushes, it is not difficult to retrieve them in service of traditional Liberal causes.

Ever attuned to the public mood, former President Bill Clinton did not rush off to blame the American people or to insult their intelligence.  Instead, he is trying to push the Democratic Party back towards the middle of the political spectrum.  He astutely observed that “If we let people believe that our party doesn’t believe in faith and family, that’s our fault.” Unfortunately, for the Democrats too many in their constituency long ago grew ambivalent about both faith and family and during this election cycle added mean-spiritedness to their public character.

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