Why 'This Is About Bush'

His narrowly focused 'hedgehog presidency' cements the allegiance of conservatives and galvanizes his foes. The result is bitter division.

By Ronald Brownstein

Los Angeles Times

October 31, 2004

WASHINGTON — More Americans than ever may participate in Tuesday's presidential election — as volunteers and, on Tuesday, voters. But in its tone, its agenda and its fervor, the marathon race for the White House bears the unmistakable imprint of one man: President Bush.

As much through his unflinching style as his aggressive policies, Bush has powered a campaign that has engaged, motivated and divided Americans — and much of the world — like none in recent times.

The Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry, has his admirers and his critics. But the unprecedented sums of money raised by both parties, the long lines of early voters already crowding polling places in many states and the anticipation of a sharply higher turnout Tuesday are all primarily reflections of the passions Bush has stirred in four turbulent years, especially by invading Iraq, analysts agree.

"This is about Bush," said Andrew Kohut, executive director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Half a century ago, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously separated intellectuals and artists into two categories: the fox, who is clever, creative, committed to many goals; and the hedgehog, a creature driven by a single unwavering conviction. By Berlin's standards, Bush has produced one of the purest examples of a hedgehog presidency.

With his repeated tax cuts, his support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and the war in Iraq, Bush has consistently pursued goals that generate strong support among Republicans and conservatives, but at the price of provoking antipathy among Democrats and liberals.

In his policies, Bush has sought to advance his ideas mainly by holding to sharply defined positions — and attempting to shift the debate in his direction almost by magnetic force.

In his political strategy, he has sought more to deepen his support among groups that lean in his direction than to broaden his appeal among groups that have resisted him.

Bush and his brain trust "have decided that rather than trying to expand their coalition and possibly water down their agenda, they would rather push for their agenda, even if it meant having to govern in a very partisan way," said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Atlanta's Emory University. "Bush's strategy has focused primarily on energizing the Republican base rather than reaching out to swing voters."

The culmination of this hedgehog presidency is a campaign that has become a crusade, both for Bush's supporters and his opponents.

Massive advertising, voter registration efforts and get-out-the-vote campaigns from the left and right are crunching against each other like armies from the age of the sword and ax. Bush, Kerry and their allies have spent at least $1.2 billion on the presidential race, the most ever, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

"This is the most hard-fought and well-funded race that we have seen in modern history," said Anthony Corrado, an expert on campaign finance at Colby College in Maine.

In the final 48 hours, a late surge might carry either Bush or Kerry to a relatively decisive victory. But most polls point toward a razor-thin race that threatens to leave America divided about as narrowly — and perhaps even more bitterly — than it was after Bush's disputed victory over Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

"If Bush wins, he is going to be reviled by the left for another four years, and if Kerry wins it is going to be the same thing on the right," said Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative political action committee.

"It's not like this election is going to resolve anything, because whoever wins is going to win by a percentage point or two and whoever loses is going to spend four years trying to destroy the other side. Don't think this is over" Tuesday.

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New Issues, Same Sides

Both sides enter the campaign's final hours with more questions than answers — just as in 2000. The race has been so tight for so long that operatives on both sides believe it could be tipped by almost anything: a swell in turnout for either candidate that surprises pollsters; the weather in key states such as Florida, Ohio or Wisconsin; or the last-minute reaction among the few undecided voters to the public resurfacing Friday of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

Many analysts have speculated that the Bin Laden videotape could benefit Bush by focusing more attention on the war against terrorism, the president's strongest suit in polls. But of six national polls released Saturday, five showed Bush and Kerry within two percentage points of each other.

Only a Newsweek survey gave Bush a clear edge. In the ABC/Washington Post and Zogby/Reuters tracking polls released Saturday, Kerry's position was slightly better than it had been before the Bin Laden tape surfaced; the TechnoMetrica Institute of Policy and Politics tracking poll showed an equally small tilt in Bush's direction.

"What's terrifying about this race is a gust of wind could blow it one way or the other," said Eli Pariser, executive director of the political action committee associated with the online liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org.

Bush's on-the-edge position this close to the election is virtually unique for an incumbent.

History offers several examples of incumbents who lost substantial support over the course of their term and suffered resounding defeats in their reelection bid — from Herbert Hoover in 1932 to George H.W. Bush in 1992.

More common have been incumbents who broadened their support during their first term and significantly increased their margin of victory in winning reelection, from Thomas Jefferson in 1804 to Bill Clinton in 1996.

But unless opinion breaks decisively in the final two days, Bush won't fit into either category. Current polls show Bush attracting about as much support — and largely from the same sources — as he did in 2000.

This sign of political stability is especially remarkable given the enormous change in the issue mix since 2000. Four years ago, domestic issues — taxes, education and prescription drugs for seniors — dominated the race. In this, the first election since the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorism and the war in Iraq have consumed by far the most attention.

Yet even on this radically different terrain, the basic boundaries that divided red (Republican) from blue (Democratic) America in 2000 remain largely in place.

The latest polls still show Kerry and Bush commanding mirror-image demographic and ideological coalitions defined more by cultural values than economic interests, just as in 2000. Bush dominates among rural voters and middle-income whites, especially those who are married and attend church regularly or own guns.

Kerry holds strong leads among urban voters, minorities, singles and those who don't attend church regularly or own guns. He also runs competitively among lower-income whites open to his economic message and affluent white voters responsive to his views on social and foreign policy issues.

Independents and suburbanites, two classic groups of swing voters, remain closely split between Bush and Kerry in late surveys — just as they were four years ago.

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A Polarizing Trend

Some shifts since 2000 are evident.

Bush is bidding strongly for Pennsylvania, and his campaign has made recent pushes to win Michigan and New Jersey — all states Gore carried comfortably four years ago. And Bush even dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney to mount a last-minute drive for traditionally Democratic Hawaii.

Kerry is fighting harder to win some Southwestern states, such as Nevada and Colorado, than the Democrats did in 2000.

But between them, Kerry and Bush are seriously contesting only a few states that the other party carried four years ago.

These trends underscore the extent to which Bush's presidency has hardened, rather than realigned, the divisions that existed when he took office.

For instance, Bush's approval rating among Republicans has routinely exceeded 90% in polls — higher numbers on a sustained basis than President Reagan recorded. But Bush's approval from Democrats has often stood at 15% or less. That's the largest partisan gap in a president's job approval in the 50-year history of modern polling.

Karl Rove and Matthew Dowd, Bush's top political strategists, have argued that the calcifying divisions in the country represent a long-term trend largely unrelated to Bush's actions.

Dowd noted that the gap in the approval ratings presidents receive from voters in the two parties has steadily increased in recent decades and asserted that Bush was unlikely to significantly expand his support beyond his party base, no matter how he governed. Republicans also say that the bitterness over the 2000 result also created an environment inhospitable to attracting support from Democrats.

Most experts in both parties agree that the nation has grown more polarized over the last 25 years, limiting any president's ability to expand his coalition. But many believe Bush's governing choices have deepened the divisions.

Apart from his No Child Left Behind education plan, Bush has consistently offered initiatives aimed at his GOP base — such as his massive tax cuts and his early foreign policy moves, including abandoning the international negotiations on global warming.

After his firm response to the 9/11 attacks, Bush attracted enormous support from Democrats and Republicans. But polarization resurfaced over the following year as Bush offered initiatives on taxes, energy policy and homeland security that sharply divided the parties.

Bush's approval rating among Democrats, which peaked at 84% in Gallup surveys after the 9/11 attacks, fell below 50% by the summer of 2002.

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Unity Ends With War

The war in Iraq blew away the last fragments of post-9/11 unity. Indeed, in its political effect, the war has functioned like a social issue such as abortion. It has divided the country most profoundly along cultural, not economic, lines — thus reinforcing and even intensifying the divisions evident in 2000.

Support for the war has generally been greater among the same morally conservative, less affluent constituencies that have been drawn to the GOP over the last generation on social issues. Opposition has been most marked among upscale and socially moderate constituencies that moved toward the Democrats, largely on social concerns, in the 1990s.

Driven by that current, the most important changes in voting patterns this year are less likely to reverse the trends of 2000 than to push even further in the same direction — with Democrats increasingly relying on upscale and better-educated voters and Republicans gaining among downscale voters mostly on noneconomic issues such as national security.

Four years ago, Bush ran even among voters with a college education. But recent polls show him trailing with that group, largely because he has lost support among college-educated men, traditionally a Republican constituency.

Bush may offset those gains by expanding his support among married women without a college education, the so-called "waitress moms" responsive to both his socially conservative and peace-through-strength messages.

These patterns have persisted even though Kerry has centered his economic message on a promise to defend middle-class families and Bush has built his economic agenda around tax cuts that have provided most of their benefits to the most affluent. And the frame Bush has tried to impose on the 2004 election seems designed to accelerate the trends.

Whereas Kerry has generally sought to blur ideological distinctions, Bush has aggressively tried to sharpen them, presenting the election as a choice between a liberal and a conservative. Like most of his policy decisions, Bush's campaign strategy appears to have been aimed more at broadening his support among conservative-leaning constituencies than expanding his reach to moderates.

"He makes very little effort to speak across the divides of the American people, to reassure people that he is interested in transcending those divisions," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank Bush praised in the 2000 campaign. "Somewhere along the way, he let himself get talked into running a campaign that is basically addressed to one half of America."

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Both Camps Energized

This polarizing approach has presented Bush with clear costs and benefits in this year's contest.

The most obvious cost has been the fervor Bush has inspired among his opponents. From financier George Soros (who has donated about $24 million to anti-Bush groups this year) to rock icon Bruce Springsteen (who appeared with Kerry this week after spurning endorsement requests for 30 years), to the massive voter registration drives engineered by groups such as America Coming Together and the 531,000 people who have contributed since October to MoveOn.org's political action committee, it is difficult to imagine how the left could do any more to beat Bush.

These efforts, said Pariser of the MoveOn PAC, stem from "a visceral feeling about where things are headed unless we change course."

Bush's strategy also has cost him some support in circles that usually lean Republican. Last summer, a group of former diplomats and military officers, many of whom held top positions for Republican presidents, called for his defeat. Forty-one newspapers that editorially endorsed Bush last time have revoked their support this year, according to Editor and Publisher, an industry magazine.

Diplomats and editorial writers may not move many votes. But their disenchantment symbolizes the class shift in American politics that Bush appears to be spurring.

The flip side is the enthusiasm Bush has inspired among conservatives. Last year, Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth, the group of Vietnam veterans criticizing Kerry's record in the war, didn't exist; today it has raised at least $23 million from more than 100,000 donors.

Established conservative groups like the National Rifle Assn. and the Club for Growth, which focuses on economic issues, are all mounting vast efforts for Bush.

"Everybody is digging as deep as they can," says Moore.

The biggest test of Bush's "hedgehog" strategy will come Tuesday.

Bush's advisors are betting that his passionate attachment to conservative causes at home and abroad, his firm style of leadership and his ardent expressions of personal religious faith will inspire a huge turnout from the Republican base that will carry him to a second term. The risk is that he will inspire an equal or greater reaction from Democratic constituencies that will tilt the key states, and the race, to Kerry.

Over a grueling and historic term, Bush has riveted America. He has achieved more of his agenda than seemed possible after his narrow victory in 2000. But his presidency has carved deep lines of division through the country.

Bush is about to learn whether in drawing those lines, he is left with enough supporters to earn a second term.