The great risk in President Bush’s political strategy has always been that it leaves him very little margin for error.
From the outset of his presidency, Bush has accepted division as the price of mobilization.
With a few exceptions, such as education and immigration policy, he has targeted his central initiatives -- tax cuts, judicial appointments, the unilateral projection of U.S. power abroad -- primarily at the priorities of conservatives while conceding little to interests outside his coalition.
In Congress and across the country, that ideologically polarizing agenda has helped Bush unify and excite Republicans. But it has come at the cost of antagonizing Democrats and straining his relations with independent voters.
This strategy has rested on the calculation that if Bush generates enough turnout on election day from Republicans and conservative-leaning independents, he can survive unease among moderate independents and intense opposition from Democrats.
On balance, that equation worked for Bush in his first term. Bolstered by his post-9/11 glow, Bush inspired an enormous Republican turnout that spurred GOP congressional gains in 2002. In 2004, another Republican surge powered gains in Congress and Bush’s reelection over Democrat John F. Kerry. For Karl Rove and other top GOP strategists, those victories were evidence that Bush was building a narrow but stable electoral majority.
But even amid success, the limitations of the strategy were evident. Although Bush inspired passionate commitment from his supporters, he did not generate anywhere near the breadth of support that other two-term presidents, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan, achieved at their apogee.
Bush’s margin of victory over Kerry, measured as a share of the popular vote, was the smallest ever for a reelected president. Even in the usual post-election honeymoon period, Bush’s approval rating never exceeded 55% in Gallup surveys, below the high point for every other reelected president since World War II. Bush’s support fell back beneath 50% even before his second inauguration.
All of this meant that even on Bush’s best days, nearly half the country opposed him and his direction. That didn’t leave him with much of a cushion for bad days, which have come in bunches during his second term.
A combination of missteps (the faltering federal response to Hurricane Katrina) and miscalculations (the Terri Schiavo case, the crash of the Social Security restructuring plan) topped by the relentless, grinding violence and disorder in Iraq, have kept Bush on the defensive almost constantly since early 2005.
Because Bush started with backing from only about half the country, these reversals have lowered him, and his party, to dangerous depths. His approval rating since mid-2005 has rarely reached 45%, and he is now limping into the midterm election with support in most surveys below 40%.
That discontent over Bush’s performance and decisions, especially concerning Iraq, is the largest factor threatening the GOP hold on the House and Senate.
One measure of Bush’s impact on the election comes from the Majority Watch project conducted by the polling firms RT Strategies and Constituent Dynamics. Since the summer, the project has conducted nearly 75,000 automated phone surveys in congressional districts around the country. And it has found a close correlation between attitudes about Bush and preferences in November.
Tom Riehle, a partner at RT Strategies, recently cumulated the results of the project’s interviews. He found that 80% of voters who approve of Bush’s performance say they intend to vote Republican for Congress next month. But 77% of those who disapprove intend to vote Democratic.
That result partly reflects the intense partisanship of our time. But even among independents, attitudes toward Bush are a clear dividing line. Fully 71% of independents who approve of him say they will vote Republican. But 73% of independents who disapprove are voting Democratic.
The obvious danger for Republicans is that far more voters in the surveys disapprove (53%) than approve of Bush’s performance (39%). Among independents, those who disapprove outnumber supporters by 2 to 1.
Bush’s decline is exposing Republican candidates to different risks in different places. In Democratic-leaning states, Republicans who have survived as moderates are facing more resistance from center-left voters reluctant to help Bush advance his agenda by providing the GOP another vote in Congress.
“He’s a really good and decent man, but he empowers the Bush administration,” Anne Crofts of Providence said at a recent local Democratic rally to explain why she would vote against moderate Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.).
In states that are more conservative, Republicans confront two risks. The lesser threat is that Bush’s assorted second-term disputes with conservative leaders and the congressional sex scandal may somewhat depress turnout by the GOP base. The bigger danger is a powerful desire for change even among many voters who philosophically tilt more toward Republicans than Democrats. Voters “are overlooking a lot of things about the Democrats that would normally bother them because they want change,” said one senior GOP strategist.
Bush is once again stressing sharp-edged ideological differences with Democrats on taxes and national security; maybe that will rally enough conservatives to the polls to avoid a deluge on Nov. 7. But if a deluge comes, more of the Republicans looking to succeed Bush in 2008 may ask whether a political strategy that provokes so much opposition, even on its strongest days, can be sustained. They may also question whether the White House vision of a narrow but stable electoral majority is a contradiction in terms.
Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Sunday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/