A group of journalists at Monday night’s Kalb Report at the National Press Club debated whether moral values were the deciding factor in the 2004 election.
The discussion, hosted by moderator Marvin Kalb, featured CNN political analyst Jeff Greenfield, The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney, U.S. News & World Report senior writer Michael Barone and Rachel Zoll, an Associated Press religion writer. Republican pollster David Winston and Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg also took part in the debate, which was the last Kalb Report of 2004. The Kalb Report, sponsored by GW and Harvard University, has hosted dozens of discussions with prominent reporters and media industry executives.
On Monday, the conversation focused intensively on values and religion in politics and the media. Kalb framed the debate by saying that 22 percent of voters polled thought moral values were the most important issue of the election. A number of pundits credited President Bush’s victory over Democratic challenger John Kerry to Americans casting ballots based on a perception that Bush had better moral values.
“The electorate has been cleaved along moral lines and lines of religion, whether the issue was abortion or the issue of this year, Iraq,” Barone said.
He added that values played an extremely important role on Nov. 2, and forced an unexpected electoral shift from economic and foreign policy issues.
But other panelists argued that the significance of morals was not a prominent as some media and political outlets are proclaiming.
“Most of the analysis shows that it’s not that different from the exit polls of the L.A. Times in other years,” Greenberg said.
Nagourney said that the term “moral values” was too vague to be accurately judged in a poll.
“It depends what you mean by moral values,” he said. “It might have meant abortion, it might have meant gay marriage, it might have meant Janet Jackson and the Super Bowl and … whatever you call it.”
The panel clarified the issue by designating moral values as differences in Bush and Kerry’s stances on abortion and gay marriage.
Winston said the Bush strategy capitalized on religious differences between the two candidates.
“When I went down to the Bush campaign, I saw that they were very clear about the strategy, which was to put Kerry outside of the mainstream,” he said. “The Bush people said, ‘We are not running an anti-abortion campaign.'”
Greenberg said Democrats were unable to beat Bush on the religion issue because of the president’s ability to relate to a vast group of voters.
“Bush is brilliant at speaking to his base, but also at speaking in code like ‘the culture of life,’ partly because he knows being anti-gay and anti-abortion is alienating,” she said. “By and large, the Democrats don’t know how to make arguments like this.”
Zoll, speaking about the religion issue, said, “To see someone like George Bush say he believes in the Bible and Christ, that motivates (evangelists) very much.”
Analysts also pointed to greater problems for Kerry than a failure to win Christian and evangelical voters.
“The narrative line of liberalism is, ‘We’re moving from belief to skepticism,’ as most modern movements are going,” Barone said.
Winston added that “religion is the tip of the iceberg,” and said Bush simply did a better job appealing to moderate voters.
He said, “Ultimately, elections are more geared toward the center and this president created a dialogue with the center.”