As political signals go, it was unmistakable. A day after kicking off his reelection campaign with sharp attacks on tax-hiking, weak-on-defense, terminally pessimistic Democrats, President George W. Bush summoned reporters to the Roosevelt Room to solemnly declare that a ban on gay marriage should be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. But Bush's pronouncement, which delighted religious conservatives, was viewed by most political observers as a sign of weakness.
With the short primary season coming to an end, the Democratic Party is unusually united. The President, meanwhile, is still putting out brushfires on the Right. The reason: Some hard-liners are up in arms about an immigration reform package they consider too liberal and a budget they call fiscally irresponsible. While few political observers think that GOP conservatives will defect to the Dems, Bush's attempts to consolidate his core could alienate live-and-let-live moderates -- particularly suburban women. "It looks like Bush's people have determined that it's more important to have the base than lose a few swing votes," says University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus.
Certainly Bush is working hard to keep his ranks in line. In addition to the gay marriage amendment, he pleased the Right by sweeping aside Democratic filibusters and naming two conservatives to the federal bench. The President is also threatening to veto a bipartisan highway bill as expensive pork. And he has quietly put his immigration proposal on a back burner.
But the framing of the proposed amendment shows how fine a line the White House is trying to walk. While Bush implied that only marriage between heterosexuals "promotes the stability of society" -- a position that resonated with Christian conservatives -- he also urged that the debate be conducted "without bitterness or anger."
It will be harder for Bush to soothe fiscal conservatives who have not forgiven him for his profligate spending. Since he assumed office, discretionary spending has jumped 27% -- double the rate under Bill Clinton. "This Administration is being far too shortsighted," says Chris Edwards, director of fiscal policy at the libertarian Cato Institute. "The deficit [backlash]...will affect turnout in the election."
The President has tried to parry these concerns, but again his solution risks irritating swing voters. His 2004 budget calls for $4.9 billion in cuts -- a mere sliver of the deficit -- but the choices could make Bush look less than compassionate. Among the programs to be sliced: housing assistance and local law enforcement grants.
Bush also is caught between constituencies on immigration policy. He tried to woo Latinos by liberalizing immigration laws to allow more guest workers. But conservative Jim Oberweis, who is seeking the GOP nomination for an open Senate seat in Illinois, calls it "blanket amnesty in disguise." Oberweis ran ads against the President's plan and says the response has been enormous. "We had to install five additional phone lines," he marvels.
Finessing areas as disparate as gay marriage and immigration will take enormous political agility. Still, Bush has little choice. He can't win reelection with his conservative base alone. But he can't win without it, either. The chairman giveth, and the chairman taketh away. From Feb. 20-24, Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan was making headlines, with the news all breaking in the Bush Administration's favor. Greenspan reassured voters that their jobs aren't headed overseas and also decried protectionism. And he boosted the White House's campaign to rein in mortgage giants Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE).
But on Feb. 25, he urged Congress to start hacking down the Bush deficit by slowing the future growth of Social Security benefits. That plain talk about two hot-button issues may have wiped out most of the benefits of Greenspan's earlier encouraging words. And the chairman has probably set off alarms among Republicans who still blame him for not doing more to stoke job growth in the runup to the election of 1992 -- thereby helping to deny a second term to George H.W. Bush. Ralph's back -- so how scared should Democrats be? Plenty. A January poll of likely voters by Public Opinion Strategies found that 21% declared themselves Ralph Nader supporters (though not necessarily voters), up from 13% in April 2000. Typical Nader fans are young white men, liberals, and Democrats, particularly in mid-Atlantic and Pacific states -- two Democratic strongholds that include such battlegrounds as Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Washington. More bad news: A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll showed John Kerry in a dead heat with George W. Bush in a two-man race. But add Nader to the mix and the President gains a slim lead.