Social Studies July 2005

George W. Bush, the Life-Preserver President

Bush's and the Republicans' problem is that, except on one crucial issue, they have lost the center.

With President Bush's approval ratings stuck below the halfway mark, the public increasingly gloomy about Iraq, and Social Security reform going nowhere, the words "lame duck" have been in the air a lot lately. Conventional wisdom has Bush struggling with "second-term blues."

Nonsense, said an administration official last month, in an e-mail that made the rounds in Washington. In May of 1985, a Washington Post analysis declared that President Reagan was "impeded by his lame-duck status," but the official noted that Reagan went on to score many second-term successes. "Wise presidents," concluded the official, "ignore the white noise."

Both sides are wrong. What confronts Bush and his party is not a lame-duck problem, but it isn't white noise, either. The Republicans' problem is that, except on one crucial issue, they have lost the center.

Republicans adore Bush. In a CBS News poll released this week, they gave him an 86 percent approval rating. Democrats loathe him by a comparable margin (82 percent disapproval, in the CBS poll). Because the partisans cancel each other out, the swing vote belongs to independents, who account for about a third of the electorate. They lean against Bush, with 42 percent approving of his performance and 51 percent disapproving. (That's from the CBS News poll. Others are in the same range.) It is the middle's discontent that accounts for Bush's anemic overall approval ratings.

Partisans likewise cancel each other out on satisfaction with the way things are going. More than two-thirds of Republicans are happy; more than three-fourths of Democrats are unhappy. Independents again determine the swing, and again they side with Democrats, with only 37 percent telling the Gallup Organization that they are satisfied with the way things are going, and 57 percent telling Zogby International that the country is on the wrong track. As for Congress, not even Republicans are enthusiastic about it right now, but independents' 2-to-1 disapproval makes them even more sour on Congress than are Democrats—which takes some doing.

Why are independents so grumpy? The problem, as the disenchantment with Congress implies, is not that Bush is a lame duck. It is that independents regard Bush and the Republicans as out of touch and ineffective.

"A strong majority of self-described political independents—68 percent—say they disagreed with the president's priorities," said The Washington Post in June, reporting on a Post/ABC News poll. A Fox News/ Opinion Dynamics survey in June found independents saying by 61 to 31 percent that Congress "is not in touch with what is going on in the country." For Republicans, those are ugly numbers.

They reflect not only disgruntlement with Republicans' legislative priorities (too much about Terri Schiavo, not enough about gas prices), but also with many of their goals and ideas. For instance, a CNN/USA Today/Gallop poll finds that independents side with Democrats in opposing Social Security private accounts, which two-thirds of Republicans favor.

On the judiciary, too, it is Republicans who stand apart. According to a Gallup Poll in May, the solid consensus among both Democrats and independents is that federal judges are neither too liberal nor too conservative but "just about right." The Republican consensus, by contrast, is "too liberal." The rest of the country, it seems, does not share the Republicans' revisionist agenda for the federal courts.

Especially striking is independents' alignment with Democrats on international alliances. Last year, polling by the German Marshall Fund of the United States found that independents—like Democrats, but in marked contrast to Republicans—view the United Nations favorably, want the U.S. to become closer to the European Union, believe America should not be the sole superpower, and think it is essential to secure the approval of the U.N., NATO, and "the main European allies" before using military force in another situation like Iraq. With their defiantly Jacksonian foreign policy, Republicans are lined up not only against leftists at home and abroad but against American centrists—the "mainstream"—as well.

All of that would be less ominous for Republicans if independents didn't also take a dim view of the administration's effectiveness. Zogby finds independents rating Bush's job performance "fair" or "poor" over "good" or "excellent" by a 2-to-1 ratio, with the plurality (35 percent) opting for "poor." (Interestingly, independents hold a better—though still unfav- orable—opinion of Bush than of his job performance, making him the mirror image of President Clinton, who was less popular than his policies.)

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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