'Partisan gap' grows: a good sign for Bush?

Previous presidents who fanned political passions, including Reagan and Clinton, did well at the ballot box.

When it comes to President Bush, you either love him or hate him - or so it seems, in this nation's highly charged political climate.

Americans may still feel under threat of terrorism, but for Bush, the political respite of 9/11 - the sky-high approval ratings born of strong support from voters of both parties - has ended.

By mid-September, Bush had matched President Reagan for the widest gap ever in job-approval rating between Republicans and Democrats, 86 percent vs. 16 percent, in the history of the Gallup poll. (Reagan hit the 70-point gap twice, late in 1984, as he ran for reelection.)

Bush's role as a polarizer continues where President Clinton left off. Clinton was, in his time, the most polarizing president to date, as was Reagan before him.

The first President Bush was less polarizing than the others, in part because he was more willing to go against party orthodoxy. He sometimes angered his own party and pleased the opposition, as with his decision to raise taxes after pledging that he would not.

And in that, there may be a lesson: Polarizers Reagan and Clinton both won reelection; the first President Bush did not. The additional lesson seems to be, keep your core voters happy and don't worry about compromising with the other party. On most issues, the current President Bush is doing just that.

Second Bush takes hard line

"On the economy, tax cuts, the environment, issues that divide Democrats and Republicans, he's taken a hard-line Republican stance," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego who has studied the partisan differences of presidential approval. One exception is education. But even the Iraq war is "turning into a partisan issue as well, which it wasn't initially," Professor Jacobson adds.

The Pew center's latest poll also shows a yawning gap in presidential approval, to the point where partisan views of the president are now "as strongly held as opinion of former President Clinton [was] at the height of the impeachment scandal," the center's report says.

As it did then, the return of intense partisanship at both the grass roots and elite levels bodes ill for Congress's ability to pass landmark legislation, such as a prescription drug law for seniors.

Other factors play into the polarizing nature of the times, including the longtime growth in "safe" congressional seats, which allows members to play to constituents of their own party and no one else. The decline in contested House seats has reached the point where only about 10 percent of that chamber's 435 seats are "in play" at election time.

Democrats, of course, also come in for their share of blame for the polarizing tone of the times - both on Capitol Hill and in the presidential campaign. In the Senate recently, two of the older members - Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska and Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia - went after each other over the war with a nastiness that was striking to observers of that traditionally collegial body. In the presidential race, the Democrats' sense that Bush is vulnerable has led many of the candidates to take their gloves off.

Tough politics can pay

"You have a political civil war going on that will only intensify as we get closer to the election," says a senior Republican Senate aide. "You can see, on the Demo-cratic side, a lot of this is driven by the success of the Dean campaign, which broke through when he expressed raw emotional anger.... Candidates who don't show that anger haven't done as well."

Ever since Bush took office under the cloud of a disputed election, he has faced the venom of the Democrats' most partisan members, who believe his presidency is illegitimate. That, plus his conservative agenda, helps explain why the first three months of his presidency showed the greatest partisan gap in job approval of any president in modern history, says Jacobson, the professor at UCSD.

Clinton also took office under a bit of a cloud, as he won with substantially less than a majority of the vote. The "draft dodger" and "womanizer" labels made his election controversial. "He was elected, but Republicans didn't think him legitimate," says Jacobson. "They immediately organized to get him."

John White, a political scientist at Catholic University in Washington, sees a cultural dimension to the passionate dislike some Democrats feel toward Bush.

"Bush's persona really angers Democrats, who see him as high-handed and arrogant, especially on the Iraq war," says Professor White. "He's like the 1950s retro dad - he knows best, don't ask, don't worry, don't tell. This really angers the Democratic base. They don't have much in common with him, culturally."

If there was one moment from the 2002 campaign that will galvanize Democrats this time around, it was the reelection race of Sen. Max Cleland (D) of Georgia, a Vietnam vet who lost three limbs in the war. He seemed a shoo-in to keep his seat, until his opponent impugned his patriotism over establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and ran an ad connecting him to Osama bin Laden.

Battle of the bases

"Inevitably when Democrats talk about the election, they talk about Georgia and Cleland," says the Republican Senate aide.

Some political analysts suggest the 2004 race will be a "battle of the bases" - that each party will work to get its core supporters to the polls and won't reach for the middle at all. But with each party now seeming equally energized, and the electorate still split down the middle, the race for the center may be joined. Thus, the yearning of some Democrats for newly announced candidate Gen. Wesley Clark to catch fire with his centrist platform.

As for Bush, political analysts expect him, too, to reach out to the center. Watch for that, they say, during the Republican convention in September 2004, when the election is less than two months away.

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