A presidential election tells us far more than who will be the next occupant of the White House. It tells us about where we are as a nation, about what really matters to the electorate and about where our present values are now located.
In this campaign we learned that being a war hero, a survivor of enemy imprisonment, is important, but not determinative. Vietnam has receded in importance, and so has military heroism. The Republicans chose a man who avoided the pain of conflict safely in the Texas National Guard. Military service or the lack of it will not be an issue in the coming campaign.
We also learned that intellectual gifts are not primary. Effective management skills are. Much was made of Mr. Bush's apparent lack of academic credentials. His inability to name the heads of government in several of the nations which stand at the center of the world's news was amusing to his critics but insignificant to the voters.
In contrast, Bill Bradley made much of his Princeton academic record and his Rhodes Scholarship. But the voters did not see Bradley organize an effective campaign, while Bush did. So the people discounted his intellectual gifts. After all, they said, Jimmy Carter was brilliant and Ronald Reagan was not. But Jimmy Carter never gave evidence that he could effectively manage the nation and Ronald Reagan managed it magnificently.
The American voter is pragmatic. He or she wants results, not brilliance.
But perhaps the strongest message and most lasting insight to come of the primary season was that the power of the religious right is eroding. This erosion was seen in a number of ways. First of all, the one who carried the banner for the religious right was the relatively unknown Gary Bauer. When one recognizes that Ronald Reagan carried that banner in 1980 and 1984, that Pat Robertson carried it in 1988 and Pat Buchanan in 1996, to come down to Gary Bauer in 2000 was a sharp drop. Recall that in 1992 an incumbent Republican president was up for reelection, so no effective challenge could be mounted.
The second sign of the decline in the power of the religious right came when this group itself became a campaign issue in the Republican primary.
There has been a growing feeling among Republicans, especially with the White House having been lost to them in both 1992 and 1996, that playing to the religious right in the primaries was not the way to win a national election. This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that the winner in both of those presidential contests--Bill Clinton--supports both abortion and gay rights and whose personal life did not reflect the cultural definition of "family values."
George W. Bush, who in his Texas campaigns had appealed to both black and Hispanic voters, seemed the perfect candidate to win back the White House for the Republicans, by appealing to the broad centrist coalition that might be suffering from what came to be called "Clinton Fatigue." His strategy was to court the religious right with pious rhetoric, but to keep a proper distance so as not to be identified with this minority mentality. He would thus arrive at the nomination and be able to seek the presidency without being beholden to the religious right, which was increasingly seen as a liability in the general election.
His strategy almost worked. But when the Bush victory march was nearly derailed by his loss in New Hampshire, he needed the help of the religious right to keep his presidential ambitions viable. So he played the religious card in South Carolina, and South Carolina restored his momentum. His trip to the right, symbolized by his visit to Bob Jones University, his unwillingness to speak out against the flying of the Confederate flag on the State Capitol, and his harder line on abortion did not play very well nationally. It appeared even to have cost him Michigan.
So he scurried to de-bobjones himself. A letter of apology to John Cardinal O'Connor for the anti-Catholic rhetoric of that evangelical school, a new emphasis on the compassion side of his slogan more than the conservative side, and a willingness expressed in the San Francisco Chronicle to meet with gay Republicans were the roads he traveled to get back to the center. It hardly constituted the behavior of one committed to this religious mentality.
At the same time, the Bush detour into "religious" South Carolina and his later embarrassment at its effects gave John McCain an opening to begin to break once and for all the power which the religious right has traditionally held over the Republican nominating process. He drove into this opening with the force of a runaway Mack truck. His attack on the anointed leaders of Christian fundamentalism, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, turned out not to be a winning tactic.