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Hail to the chief exemplar of conviction politics

By Don DeBats - posted Tuesday, 9 November 2004

The Republican campaign attacked and severely damaged the leadership credibility of John Kerry: could Kerry lead? Kerry's own record in the Senate, undistinguished to even his friends, was served up as evidence. Kerry's endless iterations of policy nuance, appropriate to the Senate as a deliberative body, further undermined his claims to leadership. Bush, by contrast, is America's first modern president with a corporate background: he is a CEO with an MBA and his leadership looks just like that - decisive, focused and determined. In their effort to influence voters, the Republicans had a positive message: Bush was Bush - a strong and determined leader. Perhaps he had been hasty and wrong but you knew where you stood.

Moreover, Bush represented values that resonated with Americans. In 11 key states, "gay-marriage" referendum questions were on the same ballot paper as the President, House and Senate choices. These referenda served to highlight Bush's determination to uphold the traditional view of marriage, and brought Rove's "values voters" to the polls in droves. The traditional view of marriage was overwhelmingly endorsed, even in progressive Oregon.

Why did the opinion polls and exit polls not capture real opinion in the electorate? No opinion poll predicted a four million popular vote majority for Bush; none was even close. Neither was any opinion poll close in Australia. The answer, I believe, is that contests in which elites demonise a candidate ensure that some ordinary voters are less than straightforward. Values-motivated voters do not want a confrontation, they do not want to be told that what matters most to them is wrong. They do not want to "confess" to a view they know is unpopular - and probably unpopular with the pollster at their door or on their phone. And so, the final Bush ad appealed to voters, "in the privacy of the election booth". There, they could confess to what they really believed.


No doubt also a part of that confession, seldom viewed as "legitimate" in a presidential contest, concerned the choice for First Lady. Either Laura Bush, with whom they could so readily identify (perhaps even more so than with her husband) or the strange, haughty, incredibly wealthy and unbelievably unpredictable Teresa Heinz Kerry, with whom almost no-one could identify. They were an odd couple - the husband with a Senate record in which almost no-one could find a leadership theme to build on, and the wife whom almost no-one could imagine shared their values.

The Bush marital team, as it turned out, was a much easier "sell".

So in the end the US election was, as ever, about character as much as policy content.

The Kerry campaign emphasised the uncertainty of Iraq and the uncertainty of the economy. But if the challenger lacked strength of character, how could he lead the way through those uncertainties?

Kerry in his campaign magnified the doubts about his character - the faux hunter shooting a Canada goose spoke volumes about a willingness to be less than true to one's self.

Bush spoke to the revolution which has created the new Republican majority: religion, strength, conviction and being true to one's self (whatever flaws that self might have). Bush's supporters know those flaws; in the privacy of the voting booth they said they understood. And in that there is a lesson for elites and opposition strategists.

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First published in the Canberra Times  November 5, 2004.

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About the Author

Don DeBats is Head of the Department of American Studies, Professor of American Studies and Professor of Politics and International Studies at Flinders University, Adelaide. His research focus is 19th century U.S. political history and he keeps a close watch on contemporary U.S. politics.

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