For Republicans, a debate over the party's design

A week after Election Day '05 it's hard to say whether there were any big tide-turning votes in the bunch. Were Democratic victories in the governors' races in New Jersey and, particularly, Virginia a harbinger of a shifting electorate or were the votes primarily about local issues with results that merely showed the incumbent party held serve?

And in California, was the defeat of four ballot initiatives a sign that voters were ready to dump Governor Terminator and his policies or was it his governing style that did them in? After all, one can only get by for so long by saying "girlie men" over and over.

Those are the results that everyone is wondering about, but the biggest vote tallies of all may have taken place in the town of Dover, Pa., on the often sleepy issue of who sits on the school board. There in the town of about 2,000 people, voters turned out all of the eight incumbent members on the board who had voted for teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in the school's science classes.

Intelligent design, for those who don't know, posits that some things in the world are so complicated, so seemingly inspired, that they could not have developed on their own through evolution. Who was/is the "intelligent designer"? The theory, which President Bush himself says he thinks should be taught in school, doesn't offer an answer. It just says something or someone had to design it all.

That may be fine as a personal belief, but as classroom science, it's weak. That is at least what the folks in Dover thought. Why is that significant? Dover isn't exactly Berkeley, Calif. The voters in the school district are overwhelmingly registered Republicans and all eight incumbents on the school board ran on the Republican line on the ballot.

Still, they were all ousted and that should send a warning shot across the bow of the GOP.

In recent years, and particularly since 2000, the GOP has embraced its right wing. Perhaps the biggest lesson President George W. Bush learned from his father's defeat after one term in office was that securing and courting one's political base is critical - George H.W. Bush was often criticized for ignoring his base. When this President Bush was reelected in 2004, his political guru Karl Rove took credit for firing up the base with cultural issues that motivated and turned out the core Republican vote.

But all that work with the base does have its drawbacks. It may bring out the true believers, but it pushes the agenda further to one end of the spectrum - making things like intelligent design issues for the party - and it alienates moderates. In other words, what is music to the ears of Republicans in places like Kansas (where the state school board is again pushing intelligent design) doesn't sound so sweet to the moderate conservatives in states like Pennsylvania.

There are signs of this problem at the state and national level for the GOP.

In Pennsylvania the GOP is running into serious problems beyond Dover. At the moment in the 2006 Senate race, incumbent Republican and stalwart conservative Rick Santorum trails his Democratic challenger, who is also pro-life in the abortion debate, by 16 points.

Meanwhile in predominantly Democratic Rhode Island, moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln Chaffee is finding problems coming from that heavily courted base, which believes he is not conservative enough. He may face primary challenge from a base-friendly candidate who might win among more conservative primary voters but will almost certainly get trounced in a general election.

Nationally, the problems are making themselves known in the most recent set of opinion polls that show the president ratings down to the mid-30s in terms of job performance. People don't like the president's policy on Iraq or the budget and, most troubling for him, they no longer trust him - 57 percent of Americans believe he misled them into war according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last Wednesday.

When you get down to the 30s in approval and almost 60 percent believe you misled them on a serious issues, it means you have lost the middle of the country. Not the geographic middle, the middle of the political continuum where the majority of Americans sit when it comes to politics. And that's the real dismaying news out of last Tuesday for the Bush administration and the GOP.

The good news of pursuing a strategy that relies so strongly on the base and issue like intelligent design, is you probably won't see your approval ratings fall much lower. The base is, after all, bedrock. But you can't govern or even win by sitting on the bedrock. You have to build on it. And after years of reaching right, and angering and isolating the middle that won't be easy - it may be too late already.

Dante Chinni writes a twice monthly political column for the Monitor.

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