Divide and Conquer Strategy Failing?
Ron Brownstein argues that the Bush-Rove strategy of focusing on generating high turnout among Republicans even at the cost of alienating Democrats and moderates has had a price.
On balance, that equation worked for Bush in his first term. Bolstered by his post-9/11 glow, Bush inspired an enormous Republican turnout that spurred GOP congressional gains in 2002. In 2004, another Republican surge powered gains in Congress and Bush’s reelection over Democrat John F. Kerry. For Karl Rove and other top GOP strategists, those victories were evidence that Bush was building a narrow but stable electoral majority.
But even amid success, the limitations of the strategy were evident. Although Bush inspired passionate commitment from his supporters, he did not generate anywhere near the breadth of support that other two-term presidents, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan, achieved at their apogee.
Eisenhower was a beloved war hero who could have had the nomination of either party. His presidency was before the television era, let alone the cynical media climate of the post-Vietnam/Watergate period. His average approval rating 65% and he ended his presidency with 59% approval.
Ronald Reagan, who was much more polarizing, had similar numbers: 64% and 57%, respectively.
Bill Clinton, who was actually impeached but rebounded to great popularity, was in that ballpark as well: 65% and 57%.
I don’t have those figures for Bush 43; the article I’m citing for the others was written right before his 2001 inauguration. If present trends continue, his final numbers will be awful as will his average. It’s noteworthy, though, that he had near-record approval ratings in the months after the 9-11 attacks and after the successful ouster of Saddam.
Bush’s margin of victory over Kerry, measured as a share of the popular vote, was the smallest ever for a reelected president. Even in the usual post-election honeymoon period, Bush’s approval rating never exceeded 55% in Gallup surveys, below the high point for every other reelected president since World War II. Bush’s support fell back beneath 50% even before his second inauguration.
Bush got a higher percentage of the popular vote than Bill Clinton did in 1996 (granted, in a three way race but one where the third party candidate mostly pulled votes away from his Republican opponent). Still, Brownstein is right about the margin of victory.
The casaulity here, though, is not established. Indeed, almost all observers would agree that the reason for Bush’s low numbers has more to do with the unpopularity of the war in Iraq than with polarizing domestic tactics.
All of this meant that even on Bush’s best days, nearly half the country opposed him and his direction. That didn’t leave him with much of a cushion for bad days, which have come in bunches during his second term.
Certainly true. Then again, he may well not have had a second term without doing all he could to maximize turnout among his natural constitutents.
While it seems increasingly less likely, a turnaround in Iraq would cause a rebound in Bush’s approval ratings. Conversely, if things continue to deteriorate in Iraq, no amount of reaching out and consensus building is going to give him much of a boost. Ultimately, results matter and he has staked his presidency on One Big Thing. So far, it appears to be a losing bet.