The everyday values of George W. Bush
By Ian Merrifield ’12
Much of George W. Bush’s success in the 2000 and 2004 elections came from his remarkable ability to connect with American voters. Compared to Al Gore and John Kerry, President Bush looked and sounded much more like someone whom the typical American voter would “like to have a beer with.” Bush’s folksy mannerisms, checkered past, and vocal anti-intellectualism struck a powerful chord with the American electorate. This tactic is not unique to George W. Bush, however; though the Bush case is particularly stark, voters have long looked for Presidential candidates in whom they identify shared values and characteristics.
Averageness in History
Attempting to appeal to voters by emphasizing their common roots is not a new strategy for candidates. Professor Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School told the HPR that this trend has early roots in agrarian society, when Thomas Jefferson tried to win votes by elevating the importance of the “yeoman farmer” and criticizing urban Federalist politics. Patterson went on to cite other examples including Harry Truman, who was able to make up a huge deficit in 1948 by branding Thomas Dewey as a distant, aloof New York lawyer. By calling himself “Jimmy” rather than “James” in 1978 President Carter tried to create a more familiar tone in his campaign. More recently, in 1992, Bill Clinton, the “young man from Hope,” was able to successfully identify with Americans by portraying George H.W. Bush as out of touch. Clinton constantly spoke about his upbringing, casting his as the true American story.
George W. Bush, the “Average Man.”
The 2000 election brought about two candidates with incredibly different personas, even if they were both the sons of prominent politicians with Ivy League educations. Many voters perceived Gore as overly intellectual and, as professor Alex Keyssar of the Harvard Kennedy School explained in an interview with the HPR, this “anti-intellectualism” was a major factor in Gore’s defeat. Bush, however, had a very different touch with voters. “People found him as someone who represented their values,” professor Darrel West of the Brookings Institute told the HPR. Bush had broken away from the Connecticut heritage of his family and moved to Texas, successfully separating himself from his father. He spoke colloquially, reminding voters of friends and of themselves, but also took it farther than did previous candidates. Bush opposed himself to intellectual culture and was open about his pre-“born again” past; Keyssar explained that, “George H. W. Bush was a success in elite institutions, but his son was a failure.” Bush took the approaches of past candidates like Truman, Carter, and Clinton a step further, not only emphasizing common roots but playing the part of an “average man” himself.
2008 and Beyond
However, Bush’s success in emphasizing his “averaegness” is likely a deviation rather than the beginning of a new trend. West noted that “elections follow a historical cycle of issues versus character,” and that the 2008 election was an issue-based election. While charges of elitism were leveled against Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.,) suggesting Bush’s anti-intellectual bias might be here to stay, neither candidate described himself in the way Bush did. Still, both candidates tried to identify with voters through their personal narratives: Obama described his success after an impoverished upbringing as possible only in America, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) emphasized his past as a war hero.
Herein lies the link between President Bush’s success and other politicians’ success in future elections: it is essential for a candidate to connect personally with the electorate. Whether others succeed in appealing to voters in the same personal, non-establishment, “average man style” as President Bush remains to be seen, though at the very least, his election proved that it is possible for that type of candidate to triumph. In any case, the trend of emphasizing common roots will certainly continue, as it has since Jefferson, because Americans will forever consider personality a proxy for determining if candidates share their values, interests, and concerns.