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The greater power

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
29 January 2004

It was no coincidence that President George W. Bush’s State of the Union (SOTU) speech was scheduled for the day after the Democratic Iowa caucuses. The aim, of course, was to attract the news magnet away from Bush’s opponents. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Howard Dean’s uproarious post-defeat Iowa speech (or “rant”, “scream”, “meltdown” as you like), the one that whizzed around digital space like greased hysteria and launched a thousand spoofs, achieved a mere (say) 14,000 replays as opposed to the (say) 19,000 it might otherwise have accrued.

In marked contrast to Dean’s “unpresidential” outburst, the White House collected a day of presidentiality. But it was only a day. Attention quickly returned to the ups, downs, and sideways of the Democratic race to select a worthy opponent to Bush. The Presidential elections, however far away, are exciting and newsworthy. The Presidency itself? Not so exciting. Not so newsworthy.

To me, the headline about the SOTU was: Bush Touches Base. Some of the touches pertained to Iraq. Bush made an awkward claim with an awkward phrase. Instead of hearing how Saddam’s WMD programme threatened America, we heard about “dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities”. The phrase was lifted from David Kay, the chief American arms inspector in Iraq, who resigned three days later, declaring that Iraq has turned up clean of weapons of mass destruction.

Some of the President’s touches were economic. He plumped yet again for his complete program of tax cuts – sorry, “tax relief” – and denounced “the death tax” (which millions of ever-hopeful Americans approved of dumping, although only the fattest 2% of estates have to pay it). “Tax relief” (for what used to be “tax cuts”) and “death tax” (for what used to be “inheritance tax”) are among the niftiest cases of renaming in the history of political rhetoric.

But even more striking was Bush’s deployment of the word “fundamental”. The word was used three times, including in one of the stand-out phrases: “The values we try to live by never change, and they are instilled in us by fundamental institutions, such as families and schools and religious congregations.”

Through such magic words, Bush sent much more than a wink and a nod in the direction of conservative Christians, assuring them that he spoke (literally) their language. The words “family” or “families” cropped up five times; “character”, four times. He spoke up for sexual abstinence (“the only certain way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases,” in the same sense that staying home is the only certain way to avoid slipping on the ice in the winter). He spoke of the need to “strengthen our communities by unleashing the compassion of America’s religious institutions.” He said: “In grief, we have found the grace to go on.” He said: “we sense that we live in a time set apart.” He adorned his peroration with: “We can trust in that greater power who guides the unfolding of the years. And in all that is to come, we can know that his purposes are just and true.”

Of course, there are other fundamentalists in the world who are equally trusting in equally great powers in a time they are also convinced is set apart. Those are evildoers. Evidently, the thought does not trouble this president.

As former Jimmy Carter speechwriter and first-rate journalist James Fallows points out in the Atlantic Monthly, Carter, a no-doubt devoted Christian, ended exactly none of his four SOTU’s with a line like Bush’s “May God continue to bless America.”

Honest to God, Bush is shoring up his religious base. Eminence grise Karl Rove is said (by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake among others) to worry about some 4.5 million Christian evangelicals who in the last days of the 2000 campaign decided not to vote for Bush because they were said to be disturbed at news of his conviction for drunk driving. Salon.com’s excellent Michelle Goldberg notes that some conservatives are grumpy about Bush’s departures from their orthodoxy on immigration and spending; at least for rhetorical effect, they’re muttering darkly about deserting him in November.

I’m normally allergic to predictions but will break discipline to anticipate that Bush will be spending much of the next nine months throwing out more raw fundamental meat.

Meanwhile, Bush’s tv ratings were lower than last year and his popularity sank after his speech—a remarkable development in presidential history. It may not be strictly among his red meat crowd that he’s not wearing well.

***

Last week, I celebrated a realism boom among Democratic voters in the Iowa caucuses. This week, the boom continues, though diminished to boomlet proportions. According to the New York Times’ exit poll (28 January), 46% of the supporters of the winner, John Kerry, said they voted for him because he can defeat Bush in November, as against 42% who said they voted for him because he agrees with them on major issues.

The respective figures for Howard Dean were 19% and 69%; for Wesley Clark, 42% and 52%; for John Edwards, 31% and 66%.

I’ll do the arithmetic. On the whole, supporters of the top four finishers broke 32% for realism, 48% for positions. In other words, the realism glass is 40% full.

Enough already. As for how important the results are so far, let’s pause to note that 218,000 voters went to the polls in New Hampshire. The Iowa caucus voters numbered about 122,000. These are large numbers, comparatively, but in absolute terms, they amount to two snowballs in a bucket. Next week come seven primaries that take the measure of American voters far, far more accurately than either Iowa or New Hampshire. Among them, Delaware, South Carolina, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, and North Dakota represent four distinct regions. If their Democratic voters (and, depending on local rules, independents, who were eligible in Iowa and New Hampshire) turn out in the same proportion as Iowans and New Hampshireans, then about four times as many will vote on 3 February as have voted so far.

Bear that in mind before you jump to conclusions.

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