November 5, 2004
TUESDAY'S EXIT POLLS showed that voters identified "moral values" ahead of jobs and the economy--and even terrorism--as the matter most on their minds. Some 80 percent of those most concerned about values voted for George W. Bush. Obviously, "value voters" helped President Bush win a second term. Bush had a lot to do with that, of course, in the positions he took and the rhetoric he used. But so did John Kerry.
Bush repeatedly defined the "values" at stake in the election. He introduced the subject in speeches by stating--as he did last week in Westlake, Ohio--that "over the next four years, we will work to protect and defend the values that make our country such a unique place." You'll note the defining clause there, a testament to American exceptionalism, itself a value and not one highlighted by the global-tester Kerry.
Bush then identified his support for "a culture of life in which every being matters and every person counts" and in which marriage and family are "the foundations of our society." And he drew contrasts with Kerry, noting his own support for the partial-birth abortion bill and for the federal Defense of Marriage Act--and Kerry's opposition.
The president also cited judicial restraint as a value--"I stand for judges who know the difference between personal opinion and the strict interpretation of the law." Bush didn't always make the further point--though many in his audiences understood it--that a Supreme Court majority, ignoring that important difference, had given the country Roe v. Wade in 1973. Nor did he note--although this, too, was understood--that judges today might again disregard pertinent law and impose same-sex marriage on the country unless they are prevented from doing so by a constitutional amendment defining marriage in traditional terms.
Smart Democrats have long understood their party's inability to reach out to people concerned about the values that Bush identified--people who, by and large, draw their moral values from their religious beliefs. Kerry never found a way to speak to them. Moreover, for these voters, Kerry was sometimes his own worst enemy.
In July, for example, Kerry and John Edwards went to a fund-raiser at Radio City Music Hall that featured big-name movie stars and other artists. Many of them thundered against Bush, who was called a "liar" and a "cheap thug" and was warned (by Meryl Streep) not to take religion on the campaign trail. Kerry said that the performers conveyed "the heart and soul of America." Bush, capitalizing on Kerry's words, noted at campaign stops that, while his opponent thought that you can find "the heart and soul of America in Hollywood," it is really "found right here"--the very place Bush was in.
Still, Kerry was determined not to cede the values debate to Bush. Aware of the church-attendance gap--at-least-weekly churchgoers tend to vote Republican, less-than-weekly churchgoers (and never-goers) tend to vote Democratic--Kerry sought to discuss his own faith and thereby convey his deepest values.
Yet here the Catholic Kerry encountered problems. He said that he believes life to begin at conception but that he could not "legislate" a pro-life bill (given the First Amendment ban on establishing religion) because his belief was a Catholic teaching. Then he cited other aspects of his faith--touching on the environment, equality and justice--that he said would shape his policies.
Kerry was trying to shift the values debate to his terrain--to a discussion of how to pursue "a society of the common good." Yet his position on abortion only served to remind pro-life Catholics (and non-Catholics) where he stood on the issue. Meanwhile, his effort to call forth voters inspired by a social gospel didn't work.
Kerry, in a less than charitable spirit, became the candidate who invoked religion while criticizing his opponent--something the president never did. Bush, said Kerry, was like the two men in the story of the Good Samaritan who passed by the wounded traveler and did nothing. Kerry quoted a passage from James to suggest that Bush's faith was "without works" and, therefore, "dead." And Kerry, before the National Baptist Convention, likened Bush to a "false prophet." Of course, this charge might be said to apply to Kerry, since he predicted his own victory.
Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.
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