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A Lot of Americans Think We’re Off the Track

by Adam Clymer

Mar 15, 2005 | Politics


After his retirement from the New York Times in 2003, Adam Clymer, our former colleague there in the Washington bureau, where he was an election campaign correspondent and editor, became a political-statistics specialist. He is one of the most probing and even-handed election analysts and is now in charge of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Election Survey. We asked him to give us a view of what is likely to occur until 2008 in the combat zone between the parties.

A few weeks into George W. Bush’s second term, the country seems as deeply divided as ever. Democrats in general, and Kerry voters in particular, are not reconciling themselves to the Bush presidency.

The Pew Research Center recently released some data that show how abnormal this is. According to their pre-inaugural poll, only 17 percent of Democrats approved of Bush’s handling of the presidency. In 1997, when only 8 percent of Republicans joined the plurality that re-elected Bill Clinton, 31 percent of Republicans said they approved of how Clinton was handling his job as chief executive.

Data from the Gallup Poll found Democrats of earlier eras even more sympathetic to Republican presidents beginning their second terms, with 39 percent approving of Ronald Reagan, 42 percent of Richard Nixon and 52 percent of Dwight Eisenhower.

The University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey, of which I am political director, found chasms of difference between Bush and Kerry voters. In our pre-inaugural survey of 1,202 adults, 94 percent of Bush voters—but just 11 percent of Kerry voters—approved of Bush’s handling of the Presidency.

BAD NUMBERS—Even Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism, a crucial factor in his re-election, was approved of by only 11 percent of Kerry voters, and that was about twice as many as the 5 percent who approved of his handling of the economy or the situation in Iraq.

When questions were asked—without mentioning Bush’s name—the gaps were a bit narrower, but still dramatic. When asked: “Do you feel things in this country are generally going in the right direction, or do you think things are seriously off on the wrong track?,” some 70 percent of Bush voters said “right direction,” and 22 percent said “wrong track.” Among Kerry voters, 14 percent said “right direction” and 79 percent said “wrong track.”

What narrowed the differences on other questions was often not the optimism of Kerry voters but pessimism from the Bush side. Eleven percent of Kerry voters said the economy was excellent or good. But the difference with the Bush voters was not as big as on some other questions; only 58 percent of Bush voters took that view of the economy.

SOCIAL SECURITY—With the arguments over Social Security heating up, it was hardly surprising that only 10 percent of Kerry voters said they thought Bush had won a mandate, in his election victory, to change the system. But when Bush voters were asked the question, “Do you think George W. Bush’s victory in November means that the American people support his ideas about changing Social Security?” only 35 percent said yes, and 52 percent said no.

The phenomenon of vast differences expressed about the past, the present and the future was found strikingly in responses to questions about Iraq. There was a huge difference over whether the war had been worth fighting at all. Seventy-four percent of Bush voters said “the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over,” while 90 percent of the Kerry voters said it was not. Only 8 percent of Kerry voters questioned said it was worth going to war over. (What Kerry would have said if he had been included in the sample, we don’t know.)

Bush and Kerry voters came closer together in their opinions about future policy, in regard to which Bush voters showed doubts. Forty-six percent of them (like 85 percent of the Kerry backers) said they agreed with this statement: “Democracy and freedom in Iraq are important, but the war has cost the United States too much in lives and money already to stay much longer.”
The differences can be exaggerated to create a picture of two Americas with nothing in common, as glimpsed in the shouters of cable television. In fact, Pew found a number of fundamental ideas about which there was little if any partisan difference, from whether the government “is almost always wasteful and inefficient,” to “this county should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” to “too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies,” to “religion is a very important part of my life.”

There are even some matters of more specific political policy where Annenberg polling found trivial differences. For example, only 9 percent of Bush or Kerry voters favored the following way of reducing the financial problems of Social Security: “When current workers retire, give them lower benefits than they are now promised.” As to another partial solution, vehemently denounced as an evil tax increase by the House Republican leader, Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX) and other conservatives, there was general support. Sixty-six percent of Bush voters and 75 percent of Kerry voters favored “imposing Social Security taxes on income above $90,000, which is the current limit.”

But even if Republicans in Congress take polls into account and shy away from some of the Administration’s ideas on Social Security, either because the public generally dislikes cutting benefits or because the Republican base hates anything that can be called a tax increase, this biggest domestic issue of the second term is only likely to divide the country more deeply.

That’s because the degenerate state of American political discourse emphasizes division. On February 7, the same day Bush entertained Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the new Democratic leader, for dinner, the Republican National Committee (RNC) issued a 13-page denunciation of Reid, proclaiming: “While President Bush and Republicans in Congress are working to win the war on terror, preserve Social Security and lower health care costs, Harry Reid and his taxpayer-funded war room are focused on obstruction.”

Bush reportedly took Reid aside to tell him that he had nothing to do with the RNC mailing, but the RNC promised to keep on bashing Reid.

This way of doing political business extends to issues. MoveOn.org, a liberal group with a busy website, started running television ads on January 31 featuring old people doing menial jobs with the voice-over warning that Bush’s plan would lead to “the working retirement.”

Cutting promised future benefits may be a good or a bad idea, but no one is talking about cutting them below what they are today, plus price inflation. Then Bush in his State of the Union address introduced a “terminological inexactitude” (that’s a Winston Churchill coinage because the rules of the House of Commons forbade him to say “lie”). Of Social Security, Bush said that “by the year 2042 the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt.”

Sure “bankrupt” is a scare word, which Democrats sometime use, but even the Social Security Administration says that in 2042 it will be able to pay 73 percent of currently promised benefits.

Now comes the news that the people who brought us the anti-Kerry “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” are going to work for USA Next, a right-wing lobbying outfit. As the New York Timesreported in disclosing this connection, USA Next sees the AARP as the chief obstacle to the public acceptance of Bush’s Social Security plan and portrays it as “a liberal organization out of step with Republican values.”

Un-Republican? Anyone remember when AARP provided crucial support to the Bush administration’s Medicare drug legislation? It did, in 2003, and it lost a lot of members by doing so.

MORE DIVISIVENESS—This is only one of the reasons that political divisions are unlikely to get any better. About the only people who think divisiveness is a good thing are those on the right and left fringes of the political parties. They think the gaps are not deep enough yet, because they see party leaders as gutless compromisers when rational people think they are hard-liners.

One major polarizing figure, President Bush, will not be a central player in 2008, because he cannot run again. And the deepest divisions in the 2004 electorate were those having to do with Bush himself. There must have been some voters out there who simply said “he’s okay,” but there were not many. Most people seemed to love him or hate him.

But there is a pretty good chance that the only other comparably polarizing politician on the landscape will be a central figure in 2008. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has been a partisan lightning rod since at least 1993. Her wars over health care and the “vast right-wing conspiracy” may not have produced casualty lists like Iraq’s. But if she runs in 2008, the chasm between friends and foes in that year will probably match that of today.

In the meantime, of course, the Republicans will spend the next three years running against Howard Dean, the liberal, anti-war candidate in the Democrats’ 2004 presidential primary campaign, now the newly elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee. But how many people outside of the politics business can get worked up about party chairmen? How many can even name them?
Congress is likely to reflect and intensify divisions more than ever, even though lawmakers from all points on the ideological compass concede privately that this is no way to solve the nation’s problems. Democrats appear to be learning from Newt Gingrich, and especially Bob Dole, who in 1993 and 1994 thwarted any compromise to provide more health insurance (something he occasionally admitted was necessary) rather than give Bill Clinton any kind of a victory. The motto “just say no” seems to have become the Democratic mantra on Social Security, among other things.

In the Senate, where the rules have traditionally fostered some degree of bipartisanship, Bill Frist appears to be establishing himself as the sort of no-compromise conservative who can hope to be nominated in 2008. If he pushes ahead and successfully prohibits filibusters on judicial nominations, Democrats seem sure to make life in the Senate hell for him and everyone else.

Moreover, the developing technology of politics promotes division. It used to be common practice for candidates to run toward the middle in general elections, pinning their hopes on voters who were open to persuasion.

This has all but vanished from House elections because the gerrymandering of congressional districts has left only a handful of them in a condition where this still seems like a useful tactic. The only elections most House members now fear are the primaries, where incumbents are most likely to be accused of being insufficiently extreme.

One result is a House where the Republican majority does not dream of modifying legislation in order to win Democratic votes for their proposals, and outdoes past Democratic efforts to stifle the minority. Not long ago two junior members of the House, Republican Timothy V. Johnson of Illinois and Democrat Steve Israel of New York, announced they were forming a group known as the Center Aisle Caucus to promote civility. They have a lot of work to do.

At the presidential level, while the close numbers still seemed to argue for campaigning with appeals to issues that unite, Republicans showed this year that there was more to be gained by searching out voters who might look like Democrats—low-income married women in West Virginia, for example—and bombarding them with appeals that questioned their party’s values.

A Republican National Committee mailing sent to West Virginians and to other voters in Arkansas argued, implausibly, that if liberals won the election they would ban the Bible. That was the single most offensive use of the technique, but by mining computerized data, the G.O.P. found cost-effective ways to send very specific messages.

Democrats were largely still following the old technique of targeting everyone in 65 percent-or-better Democratic precincts. So while Democrats were trying to turn out other Democrats in the big cities last fall, Republicans not only went after Republicans in Republican areas (non-city), but they found Ken Mehlman’s Lincoln-driving, gun-toting Republicans in the cities, too.

For decades, Democrats have lacked the technology, or the money, to compete with Republicans in this sort of politics. But the just replaced D.N.C. chairman, Terry McAuliffe, brought the party the computers and money-raising apparatus that his predecessors had talked about for years.

Last year the Democratic National Committee even raised a little more than the R.N.C. Even Eddie Mahe, a Republican consultant who was his party’s executive director at the beginning of its technological advance, observed: “I’m sorry to say that in fund-raising and technology, McAuliffe put the Democratic National Party on an even playing field with the Republicans.”

McAuliffe’s parting advice to the Democrats as he left the chairmanship was to follow the Republican example: “We’ve got the lists. We’ve got the money. Now we need to go out and use it effectively.”

Democrats have also lacked the Republicans’ gut-fighting instincts. Running for party chairman, Howard Dean called Bush “the least competent president of our lifetime.” That doesn’t have the ring of the Republican charge that John Kerry was a “flip-flopper” or the contention that Kerry would make the nation unsafe from terrorism.

The Democrats’ problem in combating dirty politics was graphically illustrated in 2002 when Senator Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat and a wheelchair-bound triple amputee from his service in the Vietnam War, was accused of undermining domestic security in G.O.P. campaign ads showing Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Democrats not only didn’t think up responses to these nasty ads. They didn’t even think to hit back by calling Cleland’s victorious Republican challenger, the four-times deferred Saxby Chambliss, a draft dodger.

For all that Democrats like Howard Dean and others now talk about going into the Republicans’ red states to show that they don’t have devil’s horns, they will care more about winning the 2008 election than about losing with dignity. At least, most Democrats hope they will. After all, Dean also said recently that “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for.”

McAuliffe has given them the tools to fight the Republicans on their own turf, so the prospect of political healing is remote. There is too much distress for that. For anyone whose interest in American politics is more than partisan, the 79 percent of Kerry voters, 22 percent of Bush voters, and 50 percent of the public who told Annenberg that “things are seriously off on the wrong track” had it right.

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