The Life-Preserver President

How long can Republicans stay afloat?


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 last 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 again; 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/Gallup 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 unfavorable—opinion of Bush than of his job performance, making him the mirror image of President Clinton, who was less popular than his policies.)

Zogby asked respondents to rate Bush's handling of eight issues. On Iraq, foreign policy, the environment, and Social Security and Medicare, majorities or pluralities of independents rated Bush's performance as poor, and in no category—not even taxes—did a plurality rate his performance better than fair. Translation: We are underwhelmed. And here is a result that should have Republicans worried: Gallup finds the plurality of moderates agreeing with the majority of Democrats that Bush's policies have hurt, not helped, the economy.

Iraq? According to the new CBS News poll, 54 percent of independents (as against about a fourth of Republicans and three-fourths of Democrats) think things are going badly there. (A fourth of independents say "very badly.") By 2-to-1, independents agree with Democrats that Bush has not "developed a clear plan for dealing with the situation in Iraq," a result that other polls have confirmed. Fifty-six percent say the American involvement in Iraq is "creating more terrorists who are planning to attack the U.S." The saving grace for Bush is that the public still believes that eventual success in Iraq is more likely than not. Centrists appear cautiously optimistic—not because of Bush's performance, but in spite of it.

Legislative victories—a Supreme Court confirmation, an energy bill—may give the Republicans some lift, but probably not for long. From independents' point of view, the problem is not the process ("getting things done"). The problem is getting things solved. Independents are pragmatists. They want to see results, or else they want to see Plan B. On some of the country's most pressing problems—Iraq, Iranian and North Korean nuclear proliferation, the deficit—they see neither. Instead, they see a Republican establishment that seems to relish teeing up confrontations over social issues while North Korea builds nukes and gasoline prices rise.

On issue after issue, in short, independents look like Democrats. Moderate Democrats, to be sure. Unlike Democratic partisans, they don't hate Bush. But they don't share his priorities, don't like his program, and don't feel he has the country's problems well in hand. The mystery, then, is what keeps Bush afloat. Part of the answer is the unwavering support of Republicans, but they make up only about a third of the public. The rest of the answer is one word long: terrorism.

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.