Why Bush won

Democrats sensed defeat late last night.

Democrats sensed defeat late last night. "George W. Bush is going to win re-election. Yeah, the lawyers will haggle about Ohio. But this time, Democrats don't have the popular vote on their side. Bush does," Will Saletan writes in Slate.

Saletan explains the outcome by arguing that Bush is a simple guy, and that the majority of people who go to the polls respond well to simplistic people and ideas. The argument contains some measure of truth when it comes to Bush, although it sells the American people short in every respect. Ultimately, it's an insufficient and unconvincing account of Bush and his bond with supporters. And it doesn't serve the interests of Democrats. Saletan thinks that Kerry, having proven his courage and brains in Vietnam and in the debates, lost because he lacked "simplicity." Actually, he lacked intellectual coherence. His dire assessment of the so-so economy was overblown, at least on the national level. His ideas for national security amid a time of war were all over the map. Bush's ideas may yet prove wrong. His presentation of those ideas wasn't very articulate. But they weren't simplistic.

Saletan's misguided assessment of Bush leads him to a weird conclusion. He thinks that Democrats can reclaim the White House in 2008 by running John Edwards. He thinks that the trial lawyer with the big smile would be a Democratic Bush. But he'd be the anti-Bush. The Democrats need to really come to grips with the real source of Bush's appeal before they can figure out a way back to the White House. What they really need is another Clinton, not another left-leaning populist. They need to tack back to the center, not move further and further to the left.

Saletan's argument runs astray from the start. The headlines are mean spirited and loaded with contempt. They cling desperately to the comforting caricature of Bush as an inarticulate bumbler: "Misunderestimated again/The key to Bush's victory: Simplicity/Simple but effective/Why you keep losing to this idiot." That line of thinking was wrong four years ago, and it's wrong today. Bush can be maddeningly inarticulate, and he's made plenty of mistakes. That doesn't make him simplistic or stupid. Lincoln, the greatest wartime leader in our history, made so many mistakes that critics derided him as a baboon and predicted a Confederate victory nearly to the end. Bush is no Lincoln, but he's no dummy, either. "He's very tough, an extraordinarily good politician and a lot smarter than people think," according to President Clinton.

Saletan is correct when he argues that voters are willing to forgive a lot of Bush's mistakes because they believe that he "gets it." Personally, I prefer a reasonably intelligent president who "get's it" to a brilliant academically trained president like Carter, who, in my view, didn't. Many presidential historians argue that the most successful presidents are those with sharp instincts and the ability to focus on a few powerful themes.

But the source of contention isn't really the simplicity of Bush's ideas. The trouble is that many people don't like them, and calliing him stupid is about the worst insult they can hurl. Is the "ownership society" reallly that much simpler than the "Great Society?" Probably not. But for generations of people reared on the latter, Bush's ideas are unfamiliar and heretical. In the worlds of academia and the media, where elites are winnowed through years of grueling academic competition, intellect is the currency of the realm. So when people want to whip out the heavy weaponry, they call their opponents stupid.

It's an effective strategy for enforcing discipline within the ranks. But it's a poor choice of weapon when trained upon Bush or Giuliani, who don't keep score by comparing SATs.

Bush has a real problem communicating his ideas to people who don't agree with him. The country would be much better off if he had a little more of Churchill or Roosevelt's ability to inspire those of different mind. I hope he figures out a way to bridge the ideological chasm that separates the country. He doesn't need to change anyone's mind. He just needs to get to the point where critics can say, oh, okay, I get your point. I don't agree, but I can follow your argument. It will have to be a mutual effort, though.

His performance during the three debates with Kerry ranged from atrocious to barely passable. But his ideas, about Iraq and terror in particular, had more intellectual coherence than Kerry's. Voters, who really aren't so stupid, picked up on that.

His opponents misunderestimate that coherence as simplicity.

Reader Genny Cobb responds:

Re: Bush's simplicity.

No one thinks Bush is stupid, they think he is inexperienced and incompetent. Oh yes and what he "says" never matches what he "does". You are confusing Bush's slogans as something he stands for, but he really doesn't make any sense because there is no depth, detail, to his "words".

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