Bush Country

Author: R. Bruce Dold

Two days after the re-election of President George W. Bush, London’s Daily Mirror published this cheeky headline: “How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?”

You might chalk that up to the usual fare of the sensational British tabloids, except in this presidential election you had the distinct impression that 59,028,550 people—the number who voted for John Kerry, give or take a few stray Ohioans—agreed with the sentiment.

How could anyone vote for George W. Bush?

Many people were astonished at that. They were mystified as to how anyone could back this president.

I heard from thousands of those people when my newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, endorsed Bush. “I could understand a Bush endorsement from the Hickville, Red Neck Gun-Toting Flag-Waving Gazette, but the Chicago Tribune?” one woman wrote. “Wow. Don’t you read the news?”

Yes, the news. It offered plenty of reasons to vote against George W. Bush. The case for war in Iraq was built on faulty intelligence. The nation had plunged from budget surpluses to record deficits. The economy had lost 1 million jobs on his watch. The rest of the world seemed to despise us.

And yet, Bush won. He was the first presidential candidate since 1988 to win a majority of the popular vote, with a 51 to 48 percent margin. He carried 31 states. A map of the electoral vote shows splotches of Democrat blue in the Northeast, West Coast and Great Lakes, and a wide swath of red from Virginia to Texas to Nevada to Iowa.

Take a closer look at some of the blue states. Color them red and blue by the vote in each county. Outside of their major cities, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania turn red.

That’s Bush Country. It’s a lot of territory.

What were these people thinking?

Right after the election, the news media went to the most convenient place to figure out the country: the exit poll. Turned out that 22 percent of voters said “moral values” was their greatest concern in the election, and 80 percent of those people voted for Bush. Moral values ranked higher than any other concern, including terrorism, Iraq and the economy.

The exit poll touched off lots of analysis about the influence of religion, particularly of evangelical Christians, on this election. Some of this analysis suggested that the United States hadn’t staged an election, it had experienced a jihad.

In an essay in The New York Times, author and historian Garry Wills questioned whether the United States could still be considered an “enlightened” nation in the wake of the election. “The secular states of modern Europe do not understand the fundamentalism of the American electorate. It is not what they experienced from this country in the past,” Wills wrote.

“In fact, we now resemble those nations less than we do our putative enemies. Where else do we find fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernism? Not in France or Britain or Germany or Italy or Spain. We find it in the Muslim world, in Al Qaeda, in Saddam Hussein’s Sunni loyalists.”

Before the election, economist John Sperling and four co-authors published The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America. The book’s premise was that America “is two nations, one traditional and rooted in the past, and one modern and focused on the future.” The book argued that Metro states are more tolerant, culturally vibrant and promote “economic modernity.” Retro states are characterized by religious extremism, social conservatism and “extraction industries.” Sure enough, George W. Bush carried the 25 Retro states.

But he carried six Metro states, too. Nowhere in the analysis, it seems, has there been room for the notion that some modern, future-focused people found something to admire in George W. Bush.

They saw and admired a man of faith, resolve and optimism. They saw a president who understood that this was a critical moment, that the nation was vulnerable in a way that it had never been in its history. They had their eyes wide open.


George Bush’s America does include those who view themselves as conservative, evangelical Christians. That’s about one in four voters in this country. The growth of the evangelical movement is one of the great stories largely missed by the news media in recent years.

They didn’t have to go to Kansas to discover this movement. They could have gone to Hollywood. They spent a lot of time analyzing what impact Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 would have on the presidential election. Yet no one in the news media seemed to notice before the election that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ drew three times the box office of Fahrenheit 9/11.

After the election, I heard from many evangelicals who said they feel they have been ignored by the news media and have grown distrustful both of government and of the press. And why not? A decade ago, the Washington Post described evangelicals as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.” The coverage of the movement has improved only modestly.

Evangelicals argued that this distrust coalesced in the issue of same-sex marriage, when the press gave extensive and positive coverage to the decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that it was unconstitutional to permit marriage only for heterosexual couples. For many evangelicals, the prospect of the courts and a few political leaders sanctioning same-sex marriage —regardless of what the legislatures had to say—mattered deeply. But they weren’t alone. Voters in 11 states approved constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage. That included two states, Michigan and Oregon, that were carried by Senator John Kerry.

“Do you understand the provocation that a scornful mayor of San Francisco arouses by a political act to intrude upon matrimonial sanctity?” Jack Van Der Slik, a retired professor of political studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, now living in Florida, wrote shortly after the election. “Those were political acts imposed through the power of government. They were not acts of tolerance or permissiveness; they were acts of blasphemy.”

So perhaps Bush has Massachusetts’ highest court to thank for his rise in support from the evangelical movement. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that the turnout of evangelical Christians was the same in 2000 as in 2004. But Bush’s support among evangelicals rose from 71 percent to 78 percent.

Evangelical Christians flocked to George W. Bush. But then, so did many people who might be considered “mainstream” religious. Those who said they attend church at least once a week voted nearly two to one for Bush over Kerry. This election broke one of the long traditions of American politics, that most Protestants vote Republican and most Catholics vote Democratic. Catholics still make up a larger share of the vote than evangelical Protestants. In this election, 52 percent of Catholic voters supported Bush, even though Kerry was the first Catholic to run as the nominee of a major party since John F. Kennedy. Bush made his best gains among Hispanic Catholics, increasing his vote from 31 percent in 2000 to 42 percent in 2004.

Those who supported Bush did not necessarily do so because they opposed gay marriage or abortion or stem-cell research. They did so because they found a sense of conviction in him that was lacking in John Kerry.

There was a telling moment in the second presidential debate, when Bush and Kerry were asked about their views on abortion.

Kerry noted that he was raised Catholic, that he had been an altar boy, and that religion had been a huge part of his life. “I cannot tell you how deeply I respect the belief about life and when it begins,” he said. But then Kerry went on with a long and professorial explanation of his defense of abortion rights, and concluded: “Now, I believe that you can take that position and not be pro-abortion.”

Say that again?

Bush did not have to explain away how his faith guides him in public life. “He talks about his faith a lot, the need for prayers. And it’s kind of refreshing to a lot of folks to hear him speak in that kind of tone, not to be shy or embarrassed about it,” said Billy Hewes, a Republican state senator from Mississippi. “He said, this is who I am. I believe prayer works and makes a difference in our lives and what our country is facing. I don’t discount the power of prayer, and my faith makes me stronger.”

The finest moment of Bush’s first term came when he spoke to the nation from the National Cathedral, three days after Sept. 11. In that speech, Bush spoke eloquently about the mystery of God.

“God’s signs are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that his purposes are not always our own, yet the prayers of private suffering, whether in our homes or in this great cathedral, are known and heard and understood,” the president said.

“There are prayers that help us last through the day or endure the night. There are prayers of friends and strangers that give us strength for the journey, and there are prayers that yield our will to a will greater than our own.”


Moments earlier, in that cathedral, Bush said something just as stirring. He said: “This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others; it will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.”

In the first presidential election since the September 11 terrorist attacks, there’s no doubt that many people considered which candidate would keep them safe and decided it was Bush. This was an election conducted in a time of war, and America has never cast out a president during wartime.

September 11 turned Bush into a leader. Garry Wills may believe that Bush’s re-election signaled the end of American enlightenment. But Wills, in his book Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership, identified one of the keys to Bush’s appeal: The president seized a moment to be a leader.

“Both Washington and Napoleon needed great revolutions to make them greater leaders—different as their actions were (because their revolutions differed so greatly). What would Roosevelt have been without the Depression, or World War II? Of course, the leader must not only be given his or her historical moment but must be able to see that it is a critical time,” Wills wrote.

That is what Bush did. Bush understood America’s feeling of vulnerability, and he responded. Kerry did not. Kerry gave the sense that he would be prepared to defend America if it suffered another grave attack. He would respond when provoked. Bush said that America would fight the war on terror on its own terms, on the enemy’s territory. Many Bush voters genuinely accepted his view that the nation was at war, and that Iraq was a theater in that war.

That distinction shouldn’t be dismissed. By Election Day, America had gone three years without suffering a terrorist attack on its own soil. The opposition could argue about whether the war in Iraq was being waged on false pretense, on whether it had distracted this country from fighting terror or from capturing Osama bin Laden. The opposition could argue that Bush had weakened the nation’s protection of civil liberties. The opposition could argue that much of the world hated and belittled this country and its president. None of that trumped the fact that the nation had not endured another terrorist attack.

In that sense, there are parallels between the re-election of George W. Bush and the election of Harry Truman in 1948. Truman was not popular. He was prone to make mistakes. U.S. relations with the Soviet Union had gravely deteriorated. He struggled to tame an inflationary economy.

But Truman had been decisive, in the use of the atomic bomb to end World War II and in the declaration of American resolve to promote democracy and fight the expansion of communism anywhere on the planet. “The American people admire a man of courage even though they don’t always agree with him,” the columnist Drew Pearson wrote after Truman’s victory.

Yes, we like decisiveness in our chief executives, whether they’re governors, business leaders, football coaches or presidents. That’s part of the reason only two sitting U.S. senators and one member of the House have been elected president. Congress specializes in talking. Leaders make decisions.

Many people no doubt believed that George W. Bush had made some bad decisions, but they weren’t convinced John Kerry could make decisions. They may have believed Bush made a bad decision on Iraq, but they nevertheless admired him for making a difficult decision and staying resolute in the face of the consequences.

Bush spoke of moral values, of a strong America, of a safe America, of an America that believed its defense depended on spreading freedom. Many people saw in George W. Bush a leader with a sense of purpose at a critical moment in history, and for that they rewarded him with their votes.


So what does all this mean for a second term?

The odds would seem to be in Bush’s favor that he might yet win over more of “Metro” America. In the last half-century presidents who completed two terms have ended on a high note. Bill Clinton was impeached and narrowly avoided being removed from office, and Ronald Reagan was dogged by the Iran-Contra scandal, but both left with enormously high approval ratings.

There has been speculation that Bush, aware of the role of the religious right in the 2004 campaign and unhindered by the prospect of having to run for election again, will take a sharp turn to the right. But that seems unlikely. Bush is playing for the history books now. He’s more likely to enhance his stature by appealing to the middle than by isolating himself on the fringe.

Though religious conservatives helped Bush win, they don’t have a single leader to speak for them. It’s a powerful but diffuse movement. The first key battle by the right has already been fought and lost. Religious conservatives attempted to block moderate Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania from becoming the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Specter prevailed.

Many conservative religious leaders recognize that change in a second term will be won in increments. Abortion is a case in point.

“The things we can win at this point have to be things that can be supported by people who call themselves ‘pro-choice,’” Mike Schwartz, a lobbyist for Concerned Women for America, told Congressional Quarterly shortly after the election.

Anti-abortion groups will have two legislative priorities: a law that would prohibit anyone from taking a minor over state lines to avoid parental consent laws, and a law that would require abortion providers to notify a woman seeking an abortion 20 or more weeks into pregnancy that the fetus feels pain during the procedure.

The early signals from Bush are that his highest priorities do not include the agenda of religious conservatives. Bush has shown some ambivalence about pressing Congress to pass the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He will push for what he called in the campaign an “ownership society,” built on reform of the tax system and Social Security, health-care spending accounts and reducing barriers to minority homeownership. (It may be that the campaign press missed the public appeal of that “ownership society,” just as it missed the appeal of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America a decade ago.)

Indeed, if there is a turn to the right, it might come from the Democratic Party. In its efforts to shun pro-life Democrats, in swimming against popular opinion on parental notification and partial-birth abortion, the party has found itself at risk of appearing to be the absolutists on the issue of abortion. As the political analyst Michael Barone has pointed out, the candidate viewed as more “anti-abortion” has won six of the eight presidential elections since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision.

Democrats have watched a historic period of political supremacy, begun in the 1930s, slip away from them. What has been happening in this country should scare the lights out of them, for it appears to be a political realignment as profound and possibly as lasting as their own impressive reign from the New Deal to the New Frontier to the Great Society to the Bridge to the 21st Century.

In 1994, the Republicans ended six decades of near-complete Democratic control of Congress. The Republicans have now held power in the House for a decade and have held the Senate for most of that time. By the end of Bush’s term the Republicans will have held the White House for 20 of the last 28 years; the lone Democrat in there was the master politician, Bill Clinton. The number of voters describing themselves as conservative and Republican has been rising, and the population has been moving out of those blue cities and into those vast seas of red in the South and Southwest.

George Bush tapped into that America. He won an election because he appealed to people who voted with their head and their heart and, yes, their faith—in him, in his priorities and in something greater.

R. Bruce Dold is the editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune_.