Wednesday, October 19, 2005

GOP Is Caught Between Alliances

Yahoo! News
GOP Is Caught Between Alliances

By Ronald Brownstein Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As they navigate turbulent political seas, President Bush and congressional Republicans find themselves in a boat leaking from both ends.

Amid public discontent over the war in Iraq, high gas prices, the response to Hurricane Katrina and ethical controversies in Washington, approval ratings for Bush and the GOP-led Congress have tumbled to ominously low levels among independent and moderate voters.

But the White House and congressional leaders also are facing widespread dissatisfaction among conservative leaders antagonized by Bush's spending policies and his nomination of White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court.

This two-front war complicates the challenge for the GOP as Bush tries to regain the initiative in Washington and the party prepares for the 2006 midterm elections.

Many of the actions Bush could take to reassure conservative leaders — such as replacing Miers with a more identifiably conservative nominee — might alienate voters in the center. On immigration, Bush confronts the opposite problem: pushing for changes that might broaden the party's appeal, especially among Latinos, would further fracture his base.

Across a range of issues, said veteran GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio, Bush and Republican congressional leaders "are going to have a very tough time moving forward" in a way that pleases conservatives and moderates.

In the near term, Bush and GOP congressional leaders seem focused on quelling the uprising among conservatives. "The common theme is, 'We have to get back to the base,' " said one prominent lobbyist who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was involved in strategy discussions with Capitol Hill Republicans and the White House.

One measure of that focus is the effort by House Republican leaders to impose additional spending cuts on next year's federal budget — a response to demands from House conservatives uneasy with new federal spending Bush has promised after Hurricane Katrina.

On immigration, congressional Republicans may be executing a similar shift. In recent weeks, House and Senate leaders have said they intend to advance legislation that emphasizes the increased border security favored by conservatives, rather than the more comprehensive approach — including a guest worker program — that Bush and most Democrats prefer.

The revelation Tuesday that Miers indicated support for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion during her 1989 race for the Dallas City Council also seems likely to soothe some conservatives.

Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, said that stabilizing the president's base was more important for the GOP over the next year than wooing independents disaffected from the administration.

Those independent voters, Dowd predicted, will "shift rather quickly based on current events" in the coming months. But, he maintained, "the more important question for 2006 is: How motivated is each side's base? That's more important than the vicissitudes of swing voters."

Democrats say that calculation underestimates the difficulty Republicans could face in regaining the allegiance of independent voters who have soured on Bush and Congress, according to recent surveys.

Stanley B. Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster, said that independents appeared increasingly "alienated by the base-oriented Bush presidency," and that the White House and GOP congressional leaders could compound their problems if they tilted right to satisfy conservatives.

"He could lose all the independents in the process," Greenberg said.

According to polls, voters who describe themselves as independents made up about a quarter of the electorate in 2002 and 2004. But Dowd and other strategists close to the White House contend the share of voters entirely unattached to either party is much smaller.

Dowd's focus on voters from the party's base, and the recent moves by congressional Republicans, fit with the political strategy the party has generally followed under Bush.

From the outset of his presidency, Bush has consistently pursued policies that excite grass-roots conservatives and unify congressional Republicans but alienate Democrats and unsettle many independents.

In the 2002 and 2004 elections, that approach benefited the GOP. In each contest, Bush inspired a huge Republican turnout. And although he didn't run as well with independents as his father, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s, his image as a strong leader helped the GOP roughly break even with that group in the 2002 and 2004 campaigns, polls found.

Now, both ends of that formula are under pressure.

In recent national surveys, Bush's standing among independents has dropped to its lowest point during his White House tenure. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey released Monday, 32% of independents said they approved of his performance as president, whereas twice as many — 64% — said they disapproved.

Attitudes toward Congress are even more negative. In the new poll, 1 in 4 independents said they approved of Congress' performance, whereas about 7 in 10 said they disapproved. Among all Americans, the approval rating for Congress in the survey was 29% — its lowest level since 1994, the year Democrats lost their majorities in both chambers.

If the poll numbers among independents toward Bush and Congress do not improve, many party analysts fear it would create a political problem too large for Republicans to overcome simply with high turnout from their base in next year's elections.

"The Republican base can be as intense as it wants, but if you are going to lose independents nationally by 15 [percentage] points, it doesn't matter," said Fabrizio, the pollster for GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole in 1996.

Adding to the challenge, Republicans are being warned by conservative leaders that their followers might not turn out in full force at the next election.

"From now on, this administration will find it difficult to muster support on the right without explaining why it should be forthcoming," David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, wrote this week in the Hill, a newspaper covering Congress. "The days of the blank check have ended."

Polls don't show the discontent among conservative leaders yet trickling down much to the rank and file. Although down from his high point of 90% or more, Bush still attracted approval ratings of about 80% from Republicans, according to the new poll.

But Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, said that if conservative leaders were "continually negative, we would expect that rank and file conservatives would eventually follow."