Why Bush Won: Our Florid Correspondent Explains Everything

Editor’s Note: Campaign Desk turned loose two of its finest to write the definitive explanations of the election results — no matter who wins. We have spared no cliche. Expect to see either explanation in a newspaper near you on November 3.

By Zachary Roth

In the end, after all the rallies, all the confetti, all the hundreds of millions of dollars flung into the campaigns, it was all about 9/11.

President George W. Bush led the country into a war that most Americans now view as a mistake. He became the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net loss of jobs. In the debates, he was undeniably outclassed by his silver-tongued opponent. Right up until Election Day, a clear majority of the country was telling pollsters they were unhappy with the way the country was headed.

At any other time, a president faced with those obstacles —especially a president who lost the popular vote the last time out — would be dead in the water.

And yet: This president [choose one: easily/narrowly/by the skin of his teeth] was re-elected on Tuesday because when it came to the crunch, national security concerns superseded all others in voters’ minds. Forty-two percent of those surveyed two weeks before Election Day viewed either the war on terror, or the situation in Iraq, as the most important issue in the campaign. That was far more than the number who prioritized domestic issues like the economy and health care.

And on that front — national security — Americans consistently indicated that they trusted folksy George W. Bush more than master-of-the-conditional-clause John Kerry.

Bush’s advantage on the election’s key issue derived from his campaign’s bold decision to relentlessly focus its message on the war on terror. Bush’s handlers skillfully depicted their man as a decisive, resolute leader, and created a compelling contrast with his opponent, who they depicted — right out of the starting gate, and consistently thereafter — as weak and vacillating, temperamentally unsuited to lead the country in dangerous times.

Indeed, in the final analysis, the key moment of the campaign may have come way back in April after Kerry had clinched the Democratic nomination. That was when the Bush team took to the airwaves with a barrage of negative advertising painting Kerry as a prevaricator, and drove that message home in campaign speeches, on cable news shows, and in every other forum available to them.

“Flip-flopper” entered the national lexicon.

At that time and afterwards, Kerry aides (later dismissed or replaced) insisted they had withstood the assault. And it’s true that the Democrat remained competitive in the polls through the final weekend. But, significantly, Kerry was never able to break out to the type of sustained, clear-cut lead that his backers expected. His support seemed to hit a ceiling somewhere around the mid-to-high 40’s. From the safety of hindsight, this observer hereby pronounces that Bush campaign’s early effort to negatively brand Kerry for voters before he had a chance to portray himself positively was smashingly successful.

The flip-flopper charge was particularly devastating for Kerry, not simply as a character question, but also because it directly diminished his standing on the campaign’s central issue, the war on terror. Any hint of indecisiveness, the Bush camp argued, was particularly dangerous in a post-9/11 world. As the president became fond of putting it: “If America shows uncertainty or weakness, the world will drift towards tragedy.”

Kerry’s own missteps as a candidate are also to blame here. The Bush campaign described as “a gift” Kerry’s infamous explanation that, “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” The senator’s aides expected to be able to handle the candidate’s nuanced past; they surely did not expect him to offer more nuance — a red flag in politics — during the campaign itself. Karl Rove, the beady-eyed, double-chinned mastermind of election-day victory, could not have been more delighted.

Editor’s note: Hey, guys! Don’t forget the tried-and-true humble librarian wife on the barren plains of Texas versus the suspiciously exotic billionaire spouse comparison!

To be sure, there was more to Bush’s win than America’s fear of another 9/11. The tall, patrician Kerry, fluent in French, struggled to shake off his Boston Brahmin persona establish an emotional connection with Joe and Thelma Sixpack. His attempts to present himself as a regular guy — a duck-hunting, Red Sox-loving, backslapping guy-next-door, at home in field and factory — came off as stage-managed and calculating. Ironically, the stilted pose came to reinforce the very doubts about Kerry’s character that it was designed to dispel.

By contrast, he came up against a down-home, sleeves-rolled-up president who has always been skilled at winning over a crowd through the sheer force of his personality, even down to endearing malapropisms. Voters may have disagreed with his decisions, but they always seemed to trust that his heart was in the right place. George Bush was the candidate you’d most want to bowling with, and, though it’s true that bowling won’t get you far in managing a sick economy or fending off threats from abroad, likeability trumps Ivy League elitism every time — which is why the windsurfing John Kerry and his $8,000 bicycle remains the junior senator from Taxachusetts. Editor’s note: Great comparison!

The real October Surprise — the appearance on TV screens last Friday, just two days before Halloween, of the scary Osama bin Laden lecturing Americans on how to ensure their own safety — convinced significant numbers of undecided voters to leap into the arms of the tough-talking leader they know, rather than take a shot on the tough-talking pretender that they don’t. Even in an America anxious about job losses, dwindling incomes and the chaos in Iraq, feelings of personal security overrode all else.

That was the one unchanging condition of this race that snowboarding, windsurfing, wine-tasting John Kerry could not overcome.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.