Peggy Noonan's piece of today touches upon a characteristic of this past Presidential campaign in which I have become interested, the use, or abuse, of political rhetoric. After all, there was little difference between what President Bush said and what Senator Kerry said on a variety of issues. They had "principled" differences on fetal stem-cell research, abortion and the economy, but they also seemed to agree on immigration, gay marriage and the War in Iraq. So why did the President win? How did the public discern a difference in the candidates when they, for the most part, seemed to agree?
The obvious answer is that the similarity of the candidates was more illusory than real and that more voters believed in the views of President Bush. The question then becomes, how did the voters differentiate between the two when much of the rhetoric was but two shades of the same hue? Therein lies the answer. While Senator Kerry was extremely effective in rhetoric, his rhetoric did not necessarily reflect his ideology. In contrast, the President wasn't as facile in his use of rhetoric, but what he did manage to employ accurately reflected his core ideology. The question then becomes, how could voters discern between mere rhetoric and rhetoric derived from ideological underpinnings? The answer lies in a belief in the sincerity of the candidates. Often framed under the term "character," it was the perception that President was more sincere than Senator Kerry that enable the President's reelection. Given this, I believe it is worthwhile to delve into exactly how this occurred.
First, a few things must be dispensed with. The spurious assertions that Bush supporters are simply more ignorant or that moral issues such as gay marriage or religion were a prime motivator have been convincingly disproven. Some credit must be given to the Republican get-out-the-vote machine, but the Democrats also broke voter turnout records. Besides, voter turnout numbers don't necessarily account for voter motivation. Clearly, more came out to vote for the President than for Kerry, but, again, why?
We must not forget that the past campaign saw no end of attacks against President Bush. From claims of conspiracy and incompetence to accusations of "Lying for Oil," the President weathered a nearly unprecedented number of teapot tempests. Michael Moore, the 9/11 Commission, hyper-reporting of each individually tragic troop death in Iraq and the incessant airing of the perversity at Abu Grahib should have cumulatively sowed a large amount of distrust for President Bush among the voting public. To be sure, many did come to mistrust the President, but not enough to overcome a similar number of voters who re-committed themselves to the President. By the time September rolled around, particularly after the first debate, President Bush and Senator Kerry were virtually tied. Supporters for both sides were entrenched and the countries fate was in the hands of the great undecideds. What happened from the first debate to election day to turn the tide in favor of the President?
First, it is safe to assert that Senator Kerry was very much a mere vessel through which disgruntled Democrats hoped to unseat President Bush. He was nominated because most deemed him the likeliest candidate to beat the President. He had a heroic war record, he had long tenure in Washington and he was, apparently, photogenic. Unfortunately for Kerry, he was also at odds with his Democrat base over the War in Iraq, gay marriage and a few other issues. As such, he had to walk a fine line in his stump speeches, tailoring each speech to each particular audience. As the campaign progressed, he improved his delivery, reaching the pinnacle during the first Presidential debate. In this shining moment, he appeared confident, well-spoken and Presidential. However, though he did "win" the debate, he still remained behind, if only a bit, in most polls. The press was befuddled, how could this be? Many soon realized that, while a fine debater, John Kerry was not entirely believable. He used rhetoric well, but what lay behind the words? There was indeed a credibility gap between he and the President.
President Bush has never been seen as even an adequate rhetorician. He speaks in simple, often declarative sentences and often bumbles and mangles, and invents, words. Indeed, his less-than stellar oratory has caused many of his opponents to truly "misunderestimate" him as a politician and thinker. For he is a thinker, exhibiting a deeper intelligence than his oppenants would like to admit. Flying jet fighters and getting an MBA are, after all, intellectually rigorous pursuits.
Further, his declaration of the 21st century as being "Liberty's Century" and America as an "Opportunity Society" give evidence of a man familiar with philosophy of John Stuart Mill, John Locke and Adam Smith as well as the Founders. In fact, it is these and others, such as Ronald Reagan, to whom President Bush owes his own political philosophy. Their writings and ideas also form the underpinnings of the philosophy of many Americans, whether they realize it or not. It is these shared ideas, these traditions, this ideology that President Bush speaks to and puts him in step with a majority of the electorate. It is this shared ideology that propelled him to victory in November.
John Kerry also has an ideology, however the relative political merits of his particular ideology is irrelevant to this discussion. This is because he didn't rely on his own ideology, on enunciating his own core convictions, when campaigning. Instead, he employed rhetoric, "the art or study of using language effectively and persuasively," of which he was an especially talented artiste. Unfortunately for Kerry, rhetoric is also viewed as "elaborate, pretentious, insincere, or intellectually vacuous," especially when those to whom one is speaking believe they are listening to words spoken only for their benefit and not because they reflect the real beliefs of the speaker. The advertisements by the Swift Boat Veterans, the reading of Senator Kerry's record on Defense spending cuts, and his flip-flopping on the Iraq War all contributed to a feeling of mistrust for the Senator. It was something he could never overcome. When people heard Senator Kerry speak, while they often liked what they heard, they had to constantly decide whether they could believe what he was saying. Worse, they also had to determine if they could even believe that he believed what he was saying.
On the other hand, President Bush, who also employs rhetoric, has also convinced the majority of the American people that he is sincere and that he truly believes what he says. This is true even when he turns out to be wrong, as in the case of the missing WMDs in Iraq. As such, his rhetoric is believable because he is believable. People believe the President is sincere in what he says and are then able to concentrate on the content of what he says. As such, they were able to expose themselves to the President's ideology through his rhetoric and discovered that much of his ideology was reflective of their own beliefs.
This is not to say that Senator Kerry does not have any core beliefs: undoubtedly he has his own ideology. Unfortunately for him, his confusing political persona distracted from any glimpse that could be had of that ideology. A fundamental distrust of the content of his rhetoric led to a fundamental mistrust of Senator Kerry. When listening to a Kerry speech, one could never parse out what was mere rhetoric and what was part of Kerry's genuine ideology. This is not to say that Senator Kerry would have won if he would have simply succumbed to his ideology, wiped away all of his rhetorical dexterity and simply spoke the truth of his positions. His very reluctance to do so implies that, had he done so, he would have also lost.
President Bush was already perceived as believable, even if one disagreed with him on certain issues, and he was able to convey the tenets of his ideology to the voters because they believed he believe his own rhetoric. One never got a sense that Senator Kerry believed all that he said. Perhaps this is an-overly scholarly way of saying that people trusted President Bush more than Senator Kerry. However, to a politician, it is worth remembering that words alone do not win an election. Those words must be supportable by one's own core beliefs, by ideology. The voters can tell the difference. Maybe they're smarter than thought after all.