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Bush’s Problem in the Center

Dan McGuire

We’re in the midst of one of the weirdest Republican presidential primaries in recent memory. George W. Bush, the man on whom many Republicans are counting to broaden their party with his “compassionate conservatism,” is going after John McCain -- a man with one of the most polished conservative voting records in Washington, D.C. -- for being too liberal. This, folks, is cognitive dissonance writ large.

To be fair, it’s not unusual for a politician to tell people what they want to hear. Bush is making a big effort to court the independent vote. “Compassionate conservatism” conveys all of the squishy sentimentality that we have come to expect from centrist policy. Furthermore, Bush made a few attempts to criticize the Republican leadership in Congress on taxes. Nothing too vicious, mind you, but enough to establish himself as a man with a new, fresher vision of the conservative movement.

But after McCain launched an unexpected attack on Bush from the left and clobbered him in New Hampshire, this inclusive rhetoric was supplemented with exclusive rhetoric and actions. With great fanfare, Bush made his first South Carolina campaign stop at the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University. Many nasty things, most of them correct, have been said about BJU: the university enforces a prohibition on interracial dating and its eponymous founder had a thing against Catholics. The mental image should be “the Citadel,” only more so.

Bush’s decision to make his first stop at Bob Jones, as well as his decision to remain silent on the university’s controversial issues, sent an interesting signal to voters looking for an inclusive party. So did his refusal to condemn South Carolina’s decision to fly the Confederate Battle Flag over the capitol building -- a policy that even most South Carolinians don’t support, but that sells well among Republican true believers.

But Bush is learning, with what should be significant consternation, that you can’t be both inclusive and exclusive at the same time. The hard-line message is winning. Conservative republicans delivered South Carolina to Bush. They also turned out two to one for Bush in Michigan.

But Bush seems to have little support among the independent swing voters he desperately needs to court in the general election. Polls show that if voters identifying themselves as members of the “religious right” had not voted, McCain would have won South Carolina. McCain won Michigan outright with the strong support of independents and Democrats.

It’s interesting to note that Ronald Reagan won the presidency with a similar coalition of of Republicans, independents, and conservative Democrats. Bush, after his loss to McCain in Michigan, lamely explained that he had captured the vast majority of the Republican party and “like-minded independents.”

I’m not sure what a like-minded independent is, but there don’t seem to be very many of them. For every vote that Bush received from a like-minded independent, McCain received two from other voters who also identified themselves as independents. It’s also worth noting that McCain outpolled Bush six to one among voters who identified themselves as Democrats. Some of these, certainly, come from Democrats hoping to make mischief for Bush, but even if those voters are subtracted, McCain would still seem to be commanding a sizable lead among crossover voters.

The message for Bush is a grim one. By drifting to the right, Bush seems to have compromised his support among the center. This isn’t a good position to be in.

Bush will either need to find a way to reclaim the center or turn the nomination over to McCain for the good of the party. A presidential candidate who can command total loyalty only among the Republican party will get trounced two to one in the general election.