The day after Election Day 2004, the punditocracy solemnly agreed that “values voters” were the decisive factor in George W. Bush’s victory. By now, the “values” myth has been repeated so often that it commonly passes for fact.
But in the weeks that followed, a few of us parsed the exit polls and came to a different conclusion: Bush’s winning edge was due to the “fear factor”—the perception that he could protect the nation from terrorists better than John Kerry. Gradually, that view of the ’04 results has become more common. Now my favorite pollster, Pew’s Andrew Kohut, says “it is beyond question that concerns about John Kerry’s national security leadership, as compared with Bush’s, were central to his defeat in 2004.”
Yes, there is a lot of evidence that Bush won by computer hacking and other such chicanery, especially in Ohio. But that does not explain why such an unpopular president, running an unpopular war, could even get close enough for vote-tampering to give him a victory. Was it “values” (a code word for conservative religiosity) or national insecurity?
When Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg and James Carville asked “Why America Wanted Change But Voted for Continuity” in 2004, they came up with the best answer: “A narrative is the key to everything, and the Republicans had a much more coherent attack and narrative… The president was able to keep the election centered on safety (the terrorist threat) and values, rather than on Iraq and the stagnant economy. Bush asked people to vote their beliefs and feelings, rather than to judge his performance or ideas for the future.” The one crucial point they overlooked is that safety is itself a value, indeed often the highest value, especially for conservatives.
When people vote their feelings they tend to opt for the more conservative candidate, even if they don’t like his or her policies. The promise of safety overrides every other consideration. That’s why a glance back at the last presidential election is so useful for all of us who are keeping a close eye on this year’s election. It reminds us that appeals to a traditional mindset centered on security, and the powerful emotions it evokes, can trump even the most persuasive logic.
Democrats ignore that lesson at their peril. But it’s a bitter pill for some to swallow. You can watch them struggling with it on the op-ed page of the New York Times, where the bellwether liberal columnists take very different views on the issue.
Frank Rich urges Democrats to put the war front and center in their campaign because “the mere mention of Iraq is dangerous to Mr. McCain. It will be a slam-dunk for Democrats to argue that it’s long past time for the Iraqis to stand up on a sensible timetable that will allow the Americans to stand down.”
Maureen Dowd leans in the same direction, but she is rather less sure: “The president took the country to war on his gut, exploited our fears and played the patriotism card to advance his political agenda. This time, Americans may prefer cerebral arguments to visceral ones.”
Paul Krugman has quite a different view. He acknowledges that “some people [read: Democrats] believe that this election should be another referendum on the war, and, perhaps even more important, about the way America was misled into that war.” But he notes that:
Polls show that the economy has overtaken Iraq as the public’s biggest concern. True, the news from Iraq will probably turn worse again. Meanwhile, a hefty majority of voters continue to say that the war was a mistake, and people are as angry as ever about the $10 billion a month wasted on the neo-cons’ folly. Yet for the time being, public optimism about Iraq is rising: 53 percent of the public believes that the United States will definitely or probably succeed in achieving its goals. So anger about the war isn’t likely to be decisive in the election. The state of the economy, on the other hand, could well give Democrats a huge advantage.
Here’s a classic example of giving the right advice for the wrong reason. Though public optimism about the war is indeed rising, most of the recent polls still show a majority saying that the United States is not getting closer to success. The poll Krugman cites is atypical. Moreover, it’s not at all clear that the economy is the public’s biggest concern. If you add issues like terrorism, national security, and defense to Iraq, in some polls the combined total equals or even outscores the economy as the number one issue on the voters’ minds.
Two out of the three campaigns are actively pushing the war back onto center stage. Hillary Clinton recently said: “Since we now know Sen. McCain will be the nominee for the Republican Party, national security will be front and center in this election. We all know that.”
Well, we may not all know it yet. Apparently Obama and his people have not heard the message—which was clearly directly against them by Clinton strategists, who think that a focus on national security will be to their advantage in the primary fight. They don’t agree with Krugman’s claim that “the shift in electoral focus from Iraq to economic anxiety clearly plays to Mrs. Clinton’s strengths.” They saw the vote-getting power of their “red phone at 3 a.m.” commercial, and they want to pile it on until they get the nomination.
But the Clinton campaign is playing a very dangerous game. You can almost hear McCain’s people licking their lips and saying, “A campaign centered on national security and 3 a.m. world crises? Bring it on. Make our day on Election Day.” Because McCain has one card and one card only to play in this campaign: “No Surrender.”
It may not make any logical sense. If all of the voters who oppose the war vote against the pro-war candidate, he’ll be slaughtered. But McCain and his strategists know what all of the Times’ liberal pundits, and so many other liberals, so easily forget: It’s not about logic or policies. It’s about feelings.
The simplistic catch phrase “No Surrender” taps into a huge reservoir of feeling deeply buried inside millions of American voters. And those feelings run so deep precisely because they are inextricably linked to values. “No Surrender” is not a sensible basis for making policy. But it is a powerful expression of a whole web of values that many Americans cling to for dear life, at a time when they feel that the world around them is swirling faster and faster, moving closer and closer to the brink of moral chaos. “No Surrender” promises that there still is absolute good, absolute evil, and an unbridgeable gap between the two. It guarantees that we are on the side of absolute good and will remain there, as long as we keep on fighting against the evildoers.
That helps to explain how McCain managed to get the nomination, even though he was so widely disliked by the religious right. In those polls that ask people which issue is most important to them, all the classic “values” issues (abortion, gay marriage, and more generic terms like “values,” “religion,” and “morality”) score close to zero if they even show up at all. Start with the simple premise that all of those words and issues serve as symbols of moral certainty in an uncertain world, and you come up with an equally simple conclusion: McCain’s “No Surrender” mantra does the symbolic job just as well.
It may be hard for a lot of liberals to wrap their minds around the emotional power of symbolic thinking. They still assume politics is about voting for the candidate who shares your analysis of policy issues. Hence their confident urging to make the war a central issue in the campaign. They know not what kind of emotional-political meat grinder they are heading into.
It’s harder to see why Hillary Clinton’s strategists would point her directly into that meat grinder. They understand the emotional power of national security issues all too well. It’s what they are counting on to beat Obama.
But having made those issues central for the primaries, they won’t be able to push them into the wings in the general election. Do they really think Hillary can outbid McCain in the contest for evoking feelings of safety and security? If so, they are playing a very dangerous game. And if they lose, it’s not just their skins that hang in the balance.