- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 7, 2004

When the bogus exit polls began coming in on Tuesday, they were a jarring shock to everyone following the presidential campaign on all sides. Returning from Texas to the White House, administration officials on Air Force One reportedly became sickened at the prospect of a vast landslide against President Bush. The president, however, was quoted as saying upon learning this news: “It is what it is.”

While his friends and partisans were despairing over his performance in the first debate, Mr. Bush came calmly back to assert himself in the second one and to retake command in the third, closing, after Mr. Kerry’s cold complaints, with a passionate and high-minded statement of what was at stake for the country.

The last time Mr. Bush publicly faced terrible news was on September 11, 2001. His response then was to say that those who harbored or helped the attackers were the same as the attackers, and that what had happened was an evil that would be defeated and destroyed. Both our attackers and Michael Moore have ridiculed those few moments when Mr. Bush gathered himself while reading to children that morning. But during the weeks following September 11, Mr. Bush’s determination transformed him from just a nice man who had won a controversial election into the true leader of his nation.

Today, after his now-famous re-election victory, my colleague pundits and I are pouring out a plethora of explanations of how he won and why it happened. Most will probably have a valuable insight, but will be incomplete. Some will even miss the point. In his stoic and serene “It is what it is” comment, however, Mr. Bush revealed everything we need to know about the outcome of the 2004 election.

Mr. Kerry won the first debate and in the second and third continued to score well on debating points. But in neither of the final two — and most importantly not in the third — did he try or succeed in reaching beyond policy points, statistics and the campaign slogans to find his way into the hearts of the American voters. Of course, he already had the support of nearly half the voters, as Mr. Bush had the other half. But the debates and the campaign are truly about reaching the relatively small but absolutely vital percentage of voters who will complete a majority in the electoral college tally and decide the election.

In the hours between the reports of the bogus exit polls and the time that the first real results came in, even those of us who felt the exit polls were wrong were anxious. As I stood in the voting line outside De La Salle High School in Minneapolis, I imagined Mr. Bush sitting at a desk somewhere drafting a letter to Mr. Kerry along the lines of the one Lincoln once drafted to Gen. George McClellan, his Democratic opponent in 1864, when he was convinced, a few weeks before that election, that he would lose. In that letter, which was never sent, Lincoln told McClellan that he accepted his defeat and would do everything he could to help him as the new president, but that he feared his election would lead to the destruction of the country (McClellan had vowed to end the war).

I suspect that Mr. Bush did not contemplate such a letter. He may have not believed the exit polls either, or if he did, he knew he had done his sworn duty and he accepted the judgment of his fellow citizens. His political adviser, Karl Rove, may have been stunned that conservative voters had abandoned Mr. Bush in the South, where these exit polls said the president was losing by double-digits (he won most of them by double-digits), but the president, with Laura Bush at his side, simply said, “It is what it is.”

Outside of his conservative base, Mr. Bush did not win because all voters who decided for him agreed with all of his policies. In fact, some probably disagree sharply with some of his views on social and environmental issues and deficit financing. Mr. Bush won because he had a powerful view of the world as it is, and how we must proceed through it, with its unspeakable dangers and its frightening pitfalls.

Mr. Bush put it all on the line, not only in the campaign, but also in his presidency. He also understood that to be president of the United States you have to connect with the minds of the voters and find a way into their hearts. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, each in his own way, also understood this. Like him or not, agree with him or not, George W. Bush is, to use a phrase, the real deal. He is what he is.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed presidential and national politics since 1972.

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