A Right Turn Holds Perils For Bush

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, May 19, 2006

As they watch President Bush's approval ratings tumble, conservative activists are offering a surefire strategy for presidential recovery: Bush should move to the right and "rally his base."

There's one problem with this approach: It could do the president's party far more harm than good, even within its own ranks. The conservative view ignores the roots of the president's difficulties in the disaffection of moderate voters who are more concerned with performance -- or the lack thereof -- than ideology.

The Post-ABC News poll released this week found the president with a 33 percent approval rating and suffering losses in esteem almost everywhere. Conservatives are by no means his biggest problem.

In January 2005 Republicans who described themselves as conservative gave Bush an astonishing 94 percent approval rating. The new Post-ABC survey, conducted May 11 to May 15, put Bush's approval rating among conservative Republicans at 76 percent, down 18 points.

But the poll found that among moderate Republicans, the president's approval rating had declined 31 points, from 88 percent in January 2005 to 57 percent now. Recent surveys by Gallup and the Pew Research Center also point to losses among moderates.

Bush has lost even more ground among moderate independents. The Pew surveys found Bush's approval rating in this group dropping from 48 percent in January 2005 to 22 percent last month.

The middle of the middle is going south on Bush.

This creates a conflict between Bush's immediate political interests and the interests of many Republican candidates on the ballot this November.

Bush's best shot at a quick jolt upward in his approval ratings is among conservatives in his own party, who are already more inclined to support him than anyone else and might come home in response to a presidential tilt rightward. But Rep. Chris Shays, a moderate from Connecticut, noted that many of the House Republicans most endangered in this fall's election -- himself included -- are moderates who would be hurt if his party and his president moved farther right.

"His going to the right to move up from 35 percent is not going to help us out," Shays, speaking for his fellow moderates, said in an interview. "It doesn't help me out for him to appeal to his conservative base."

Shays, who is at the top of Democratic target lists, was reelected with 52 percent of the vote in 2004 and faces the same opponent, Democrat Diane Farrell, this year. Shays is the one being judged this fall, not Bush. "Obviously, he should be true to himself and his principles," Shays said of the president, "but if he is looking for issues, he should be looking for issues that are helpful to those of us who are targets."

On the other hand, many of the House's staunchest conservatives -- such as Mike Pence of Indiana and John Shadegg of Arizona -- want Bush to emphasize conservative themes, including deep domestic spending cuts. But a frustrated Shays notes that conservatives urging the president to appeal to his base represent solidly Republican districts.

"Pence's election isn't in jeopardy," he said. "Shadegg's election isn't in jeopardy."

Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, one of his party's shrewdest political strategists, keeps a sharp eye on the attitudes of moderate and moderately conservative suburbanites of the sort he represents. Davis sees a potential contradiction between one of the GOP's strategic imperatives -- to fire conservatives up enough to get them to the polls this fall -- and the other imperative of stopping defections among middle-of-the-road voters.

"Harder-core Republicans are disillusioned right now, but they're not going to vote for Democrats and Nancy Pelosi," Davis said in an interview, referring to the House Democratic leader. "It's your softer, more moderate Republicans who are now jumping ship."

Davis never likes to bad-mouth his party's electoral chances, and he notes that the six months between now and Election Day "are an eternity." He worries, though, about issues that could boost turnout in the base but drive away less-ideological voters. "To move right may fix part of the problem," Davis said, "but it could exacerbate the other problem."

Bush prospered in 2004 by turning out the Republican base. But the times are very different in 2006. Machiavelli noted that the successful politician "adapts his mode of proceeding to the qualities of the times" and warned against politicians who "remain obstinate in their modes." In 2006 one could imagine Machiavelli counseling moderation to the Republican Party. You wonder how Machiavellian the Republicans' conservative wing will let the party be.

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