The debate about “moral values” in the past election is the mixed green salad of politics — healthy and maybe colorful but unsatisfying in digesting the meat and potatoes of the American electorate. Dismissed by the left as a meaningless catchall phrase, liberal journalists and a host of academics continue to attack the exit poll findings suggesting that moral values was the most important issue for voters. Citing the broadness of the question, the hysterical dissembling persists, as those denying moral values could possibly drive voting decisions burn the exit poll results in ideological effigy.
Some conservative also overreached by concluding moral values was only evidence of a popular mandate for high-visibility social issues like abortion and opposition to gay marriage.
But both the left and right missed another critical piece of election 2004’s broader mosaic.
“Something else is going on,” a Republican strategist with close ties to the Bush campaign told me. “Liberals miss it because they completely discount moral values and conservatives define it too narrowly. But there is another group of values voters out there that don’t necessarily define themselves as pro-life or anti-gay marriage, but thought President Bush better represented the kind of leader they wanted to navigate through the current cultural fog.” Another Senate Republican aide agreed: “I have a sense that these voters are married women with kids and maybe grandparents, increasingly concerned about the moral climate and choices faced by their children. They may not be conservatives or even Republicans, but they are very troubled by the continued coarsening of society and the kinds of forces influencing their kids.
Parents and grandparents believe the moral choices facing their children are exponentially more complex than a generation ago. In this environment, the president’s atavistic reliance on faith and prayer were reassuring in an age where most societal institutions from schools to movies to entertainers lost their values moorings. And while media elites scoffed at Mr. Bush’s frequent references to his faith, values voters saw him as man pursuing a moral code despite being ridiculed by those who considered his worldview simplistic. Yet for many, his simplicity was an oasis in an ethical desert.
Polling data supports this view. When asked which candidate could lead culture in the way it should be moving, Mr. Bush enjoyed a 6 percent edge over Sen. John Kerry in a September survey. But when the same question was posed to voters with kids, Mr. Bush’s advantage jumped to 36 percent.
For values voters, John Kerry was an ethical foil to Mr. Bush. He was a Catholic, but didn’t want to impose his values on others. He believed life began at conception yet supported unimpeded abortion rights. He indulged comedians like Whoopi Goldberg deriding Mr. Bush, making vulgar sexual references about his name, but said these were the voices of ordinary Americans. He became what voters feared: Values vertigo incarnate.
Add to this the overwhelming support from the same individuals many Americans viewed as the cause of values vertigo, like Michael Moore, and Mr. Kerry concocted a formula for failure.
Determining what motivates these values voters is an important question for Republicans interested in broadening their electoral coalition. But addressing these voters’ concerns is tricky and it’s unclear if the legislative process is the best place to do it. Clearly some social issues should be fought out in Congress. But using the White House bully pulpit for others may be an even more effective tactic.
The president’s role as “teacher” and “advocate” may do a lot more than Congress trying to improve moral coarseness or lifting the moral fog. To paraphrase St. Augustine, “The laws cannot command all virtue and forbid all vice.” A Republican Senate aide agreed: “I think the president speaking out on key issues and convening conferences at the White House or directives through his cabinet departments is the best way to address these issues.” Denials on the left notwithstanding, Republicans broke new ground this year attracting values voters who viewed Mr. Bush’s moral clarity not as simple-minded, but as an antidote to everyday values vertigo. Clearly people of faith concerned about creating a culture of life and opposed to judges redefining marriage helped re-elect Mr. Bush. But his moral clarity also appealed to others struggling with the flood of choices and influences bombarding kids everyday, trying to keep focused on our better angels.