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Spoils Go to Party Most Apt to Adapt

Call it intelligent design or survival of the fittest, but between now and next November’s midterm elections, the two parties are in a race to evolve. Each appears to have reached the limit of its strategy over the last year. The winner next year may be the side that best adapts to changed circumstances.

After Tuesday’s election results, the threat is most visible for Republicans. From the federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case to the unsuccessful attempt to add private investment accounts to Social Security, President Bush aimed his 2005 agenda mostly at the preferences of his Republican base. That followed the pattern of his first term. Bush’s top political goal has always been to mobilize a massive turnout of Republicans by pursuing an unapologetically polarizing agenda, even at the price of straining his relations with moderate voters.

That strategy helped power the GOP victories in 2002 and 2004, but its limits have grown increasingly apparent in the last year, and never more so than in the last week. The great political risk in this approach always was that it left Bush without much of a margin for error. Because his sharp-edged agenda and uncompromising style antagonized so many centrist voters, he lacked a deep pool of goodwill to draw from when times got tough.

And tough times have arrived in waves this year. Battered by miscalculations (Schiavo, Social Security), bad news (high gas prices), missteps (the faltering federal response to Hurricane Katrina), ethical controversies and the grinding war in Iraq, Bush has seen his approval rating among independent voters fall to an almost unimaginable 29%.

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Last week’s elections demonstrated those numbers have consequences. Jerry W. Kilgore and Douglas R. Forrester, the defeated Republican gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey, were routed in socially moderate, upscale suburbs. Their deficiencies as candidates obviously contributed to those results. But few Republicans denied that swing voters’ disillusionment with Bush compounded the problem.

The days immediately after the Kilgore and Forrester losses demonstrated that elections have consequences too. GOP moderates, already anxious about the party’s standing

with swing voters, blocked

conservative-driven tax- and budget-cut plans in the House and the Senate late last week.

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If history is any guide, the GOP leadership eventually will beg, borrow and coerce the votes it needs. But the uprising, which forced the House leadership to withdraw its $54-billion budget-cutting bill, should send Republican leaders the same message as the Virginia and New Jersey results: On many fronts, the party has tilted its agenda so heavily to the demands of its conservative base that moderates feel alienated.

Over the next year, the choice for Republicans is whether to adapt to that evidence. Bush can’t ignore his base. But if he stays this weak in the center, turnout alone probably can’t protect the GOP next year. The appointment of John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice showed that Bush could appeal to conservatives and independents. Now he needs to do it on bread-and-

butter issues such as healthcare, energy and poverty.

Democrats were understandably elated by the election results. But during the celebration, they may have missed a crucial warning sign in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last week: Amid all the bad news for the GOP, the survey found that more Americans credit Republicans than Democrats with offering a vision for the future. Key GOP strategists say that if that perception persists through next November it will restrain Republican losses, and they may be right.

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The poll’s findings partly reflect the inherent difficulty Democrats face in communicating to the public while Republicans control every lever of the federal government. But it also reflects the reality that Democrats have focused more on blocking Republican initiatives than defining their own.

Through the last year, Democrats have proved surprisingly disciplined at resisting many of Bush’s plans. What they haven’t done is coalesce behind comprehensive solutions to the problems most concerning the country.

Contrary to popular perception, the problem isn’t a shortage of ideas. Consider the energy issue. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) recently offered an innovative deal in which Washington would relieve the auto companies of some of their retiree healthcare costs in return for the companies accepting higher fuel-economy standards. This month, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) unveiled an impressively comprehensive energy plan centered on a requirement that oil companies invest some of their record profits in renewable energy sources, or contribute to a federal fund that would.

But the Democrats’ own divisions have prevented them from seriously promoting almost any idea more ambitious than a legislative jab. One fissure is between those who want to aim at swing voters and those who want to emulate Bush with an agenda intended to excite their base. The more important disagreement is between those who want the party to promote its own ideas and those who want to stay low while Bush is struggling.

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The Democratic paralysis over Iraq crystallizes both disputes. Liberal activists and a growing number of Democratic House and Senate challengers are pushing to begin the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But almost all of the party’s Washington leadership considers those proposals substantively and politically misguided and prefers to avoid a concrete alternative on the war.

Raising questions about Bush’s priorities has worked well for Democrats in 2005. But if Democrats don’t adapt to offer more answers about their own priorities, 2006 may not prove as rewarding as they expect.

Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ website at latimes.com/brownstein.


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