The Meaning of the Mandate

On November 2, voters firmly and resoundingly endorsed George W. Bush for a second term as President of the United States. Bush has as clear a mandate to govern as any President in the last half century. He beat his opponent by nearly four million votes. He is the first candidate in 16 years to receive a majority of the popular vote. And he is the first President since FDR to be reelected and also increase his party’s majority in both the House and the Senate. All this in a year with the highest voter turnout in history and the greatest percentage of the electorate voting since 1968.

Democrats, understandably, have been shaken and disheartened by the results. But rather than accept the country’s verdict and move on, many have turned their energies toward trying, once again, to de-legitimize President Bush’s victory. Unlike in 2000, they cannot use voting numbers to do so. After all, it would be difficult to deny the mandate of Bush’s 51 percent victory while their own political hero, Bill Clinton, only won his two presidential bids with 43 and 49 percent of the vote, respectively.

Instead, these Democrats have centered their assault on the idea that Bush was elected for the wrong reasons by the wrong people. Every liberal news outlet from the New York Times to the Harvard Crimson has made the same point: Bush could not have been elected by intelligent, informed and thoughtful voters. It must have been the intolerant, ignorant, religious zealots of middle America.

The evidence for this claim comes from exit polls that showed a plurality of voters listed “Moral Values” as their primary issue of concern and that Bush won this bloc by huge margins. But “Moral Values” is about as vague and indeterminate a category as one can imagine. Can you define what caring about “Moral Values” means? Among Democrats the consensus seems to be that it means being a religious Christian and holding conservative views on a few contentious social issues—namely, opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

But if these issues gave Bush his winning margin, how is it that the percentage of voters who are unwaveringly pro-life stayed at 16 percent—the same as in 2000? How is it that the country’s views on homosexuality have become more tolerant, with a majority now supporting either gay marriage or civil unions, and that Bush’s percentage of the vote in the 11 states that passed gay marriage bans increased by a smaller proportion from 2000 than did the national average? And how is it that the percentage of voters identifying themselves as Evangelical Christians—the socially conservative group most often touted as handing Bush the election—did not increase from 2000 levels, and that the percentage of them voting for Bush actually fell?


It was a shift in the entire country, not just in the ultra-religious Bible-belt, that gave Bush his victory. Bush’s support increased most strikingly among voters who “never” or only “monthly” attend church—a four point percentage gain over 2000. (He only gained an additional one percent among those who attend church “weekly” or more). Bush actually lost two percentage points among rural voters, instead gaining in the suburbs, and, most significantly, by 13 percentage points in “big cities” and nine points in “smaller cities.” He improved his share of the vote in every geographic area of the country, with his greatest percentage gains coming in the Northeast. And he increased his portion of the vote in 15 of the 20 states that Al Gore won in 2000, including New York and Massachusetts.

As “Moral Values” does not seem, by the numbers, to equate with religiosity, geography or stance on social issues, it seems more likely that voters defined “Moral Values” as something deeper, more fundamental and ethereal. Morality, after all, is, at root, the human mechanism for evaluating right and wrong. And President Bush was the one candidate in this election who made clear that he saw the stark difference between right and wrong, good and evil in the world. President Bush is a man who, in his own words, “call[s] evil by its name.” For many, his moral stand against terrorism has been just as important as his practical policies. And what policy could be said to be of greater moral urgency than hunting down mass murderers and spreading freedom throughout the Middle East and the world.

President Bush made his strong leadership, his unswerving conviction and his clear moral stance on the greatest issues of our day the centerpiece of his campaign. Through this understanding of “Moral Values,” it becomes clear why, with 22 percent of voters listing “Moral Values” as their most important issue, only eight percent listed “Religious Faith” as the most important personal quality for a candidate, while 34 percent said being a “strong leader” or taking a “clear stand on issues” was the most crucial quality. President Bush won the latter two categories with an average of 83 percent. The election results show that voters wanted someone who had the strength of character to declare what the right side was and to stand firmly on it.

One issue where the president firmly declared his stand was economic policy. His entire domestic policy platform of an “ownership society” was based on the moral belief that people had the right control their own economic activity and destiny without being fettered by the government. Democrats often erroneously charge that Bush has no mandate to implement his policies on economic or social welfare issues like Social Security and the tax code because, they claim, Bush didn’t adequately discuss those issues in the campaign and voters’ true economic interests aligned with Kerry. But the facts indicate just the opposite. Exit polls showed more voters trust Bush to handle the economy than Kerry. The privatization of Social Security was the centerpiece of the president’s “ownership society.” And along with tax code reform, it was clearly discussed in the president’s nomination speech, his domestic policy campaign stops, and in the presidential debates.

But of course, the central issue on which President Bush most clearly declared what he believed was the right side, where he took his firmest and strongest stand, was national security. From day one, the centerpiece of his campaign was protecting the country from terrorism and remaking the world a safer and freer place. Among those who listed terrorism as their top concern, Bush held a wider margin of victory—with 86 percent of the vote—than either candidate held on any other issue. Among all voters, he beat Kerry by 18 percentage points on ability to protect America from terrorism. A majority still approve of his decision to go to war in Iraq and believe it was part of the wider war on terrorism. And crucially, a majority of voters feel they are safer from terrorism today than they were four years ago.

It is for this reason Bush’s reelection is so crucial for the country and for the world. It not only gives Bush a mandate for the next four years, but also validates what he’s done for the past four. Had Bush lost, his term could have been seen as the accidental presidency. All that was so fundamentally changed about American’s approach to the world’s dangers in the three years since September 11 could have been labeled a mistake. Instead, the 2004 election clearly showed the American people want to move forward on this front, not backward to a pre-9/11 mentality. Though many Americans are understandably troubled by the country’s situation (we are, after all, in the middle of a hard war and our economy is still shaky), they stood with the president and showed their trust in his leadership and vision for America and the world. That is the meaning of November 2, and we ought not forget it.

Daniel P. Krauthammer ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator living in Quincy House.