Commentary: When Courting the Right Turns off the Middle

From the first day he put his boots up on the big desk in the Oval Office, George W. Bush has been dead set on avoiding one of his father's biggest headaches: getting crosswise with Republican die-hards. The Texan is convinced that his Dad's disdain for "extra-chromosome" conservatives and his 1990 move to raise taxes splintered the Reagan-era GOP coalition and led to Bill Clinton's ascent. Party activists "never thought they had a seat at the table," recalls former White House political operative David Carney. "In the end, they became very distrustful of us."

That bit of history, more than anything, explains Dubya's continued courtship of hard-core conservatives long past the time when many political strategists expected him to begin moving more toward the center. Indeed, Bush has given conservatives a passel of high-level jobs and enormous access to Administration decision-making. And he has won raves on the right by pushing issues such as across-the-board tax cuts, abortion curbs, faith-based social programs, and a Star Wars antimissile system.

Not surprisingly, true believers are cooing: Some 87% of GOP conservatives approve of the job Bush is doing, according to a June 13-17 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Cultivating the conservative base "is terribly important" to Bush's political future, contends GOP activist Phyllis Schlafly, president of the conservative advocacy group Eagle Forum. "He's going to lose [in 2004] if he doesn't do that."

REAGAN REDUX. But 2004 is a long way off, and Bush's strategy could backfire. The question is whether the President needs the hard-core right as much as he and his advisers believe they do--or whether the costs of the strategy are starting to outweigh the benefits. By governing as Reagan Redux just months after campaigning as a "compassionate conservative," Bush risks alienating centrist and independent voters by the busloads. A June 3 ABC News/Washington Post Poll found that 68% of those responding say that Bush should compromise with the Democratic opposition, while 29% want him to stay the conservative course. "Much is at stake," says Gary E. Langer, ABC polling director, "because control of the center is so crucial in politics."

Bush advisers are quick to point out that the President is focusing on far more than GOP ultras. Case in point: Bush is courting Latino voters and African American ministers who back his plan to funnel federal funds to church groups that provide social services. GOP strategists believe that a Bush increase of a few percentage points among blacks and Hispanics in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin could tip those states into his column in 2004.

Still, the Bush Administration isn't likely to do anything to distance itself from its Republican right-wing base. For both parties, cementing the loyalty of core constituencies is a key factor in raising campaign cash and firing up grassroots volunteers. A similar strategy helped former Vice-President Al Gore win the popular vote and come within a whisker of the Presidency last year. And because midterm elections often are decided by voter turnout, Republicans reckon that victory in 2002 requires an outpouring of support from GOP core voters--among them the antitax crusaders, religious conservatives, small-business execs, gun owners, and pro-defense males that Bush has worked hard to fire up. "The first rule of politics is: Never offend your base," says House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.), who seldom has offended his.

"NIXON RULE." Besides, even if some centrists are down on the President today, his team believes in the "Nixon rule," which holds that you consolidate the base early and then tack toward the center as the election nears. By that standard, early moves to the right can be balanced later by embracing popular social initiatives. The White House feels that there's plenty of time ahead for repositioning itself. Says Bush pollster Matthew Dowd: "People in the middle tend to pay attention at the last minute."

But they do pay attention eventually. In 1993, another politician who ran as a refreshing practitioner of fusion disappointed voters by assiduously courting base voters. The result for Bill Clinton was a stinging Democratic rebuke in the '94 midterm elections--and a subsequent quick sprint back toward the center of the political spectrum. The irony of Bush's current course is that, despite positioning himself as the un-Clinton, he is tempting a similar fate.

By Richard S. Dunham

With Lee Walczak and Lorraine Woellert in Washington

— With assistance by Lee Walczak, and Lorraine Woellert

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