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On terrorism, independents flip: They side with Republicans. They disapprove of Bush's handling of the economy and Iraq (according to the CBS News poll), but they approve, by 50 to 38 percent, of his handling of the war on terror. True, they have reservations. They think the government could have done more. But a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken just after the London bombings, earlier this month, tells the story: 54 percent of independents (against 91 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of Democrats) said they had a great deal or a moderate amount of confidence in the Bush administration to protect Americans from terrorism, versus 45 percent who had not much or no confidence. Similarly, majorities of independents side with Republicans, and against Democrats, in supporting continued operation of the Pentagon's detention camp at Guantanamo and in approving of the treatment of prisoners there.
Think of Bush's administration, then, as a life-preserver presidency, kept afloat by a single crucial issue. In much the same way that the "party of prosperity" issue once gave Democrats an imposing advantage in national politics, the "tough on terrorism" issue is today advantaging Republicans.
For now. Insulated from mainstream opinion by their seemingly permanent "party of prosperity" advantage, Democrats moved left in the 1960s and 1970s. When stagflation robbed them of their economic edge, they found themselves stranded. The terrorism advantage is similarly lulling Republicans rightward. If they lose it, or if terrorism loses salience, then the life preserver is gone, and Republicans sink.
Bush's choice of John G. Roberts Jr., a relatively uncontroversial Supreme Court nominee, may suggest an awareness of the problem. Then again, it may not. The trouble with a life preserver, after all, is that you neglect to swim.
© Copyright 2006 National Journal
Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.