President Bush has put himself into a tight spot. Most presidents like to kick off a campaign year by launching a battery of popular domestic programs they can harken back to when the autumn competition heats up. Not so George W. When budget season rolled around this year, he found himself so tightly wedged between a rock and hard place that any choice posed a risk -- which has Democrats drooling over the possibilities. The question is, can they make it pay off with the voters?
The president's budget proposal reflects an answer to the question keeping campaign strategists awake at night: how to appeal to your base and motivate core party members to come out and vote for you, while still inspring the confidence of those elusive creatures, the swing voters? Bush knows he has alienated folks right, left and center, so it seems only natural that he would try to reconcile with his traditional allies. It wouldn't be easy. Discretionary spending has climbed a record 27 percent since Bush took office, sparking howls of protest from traditional Republican budget hawks, to say nothing of the fact that funding sweeping federal programs like the No Child Left Behind Act makes local-rule Republicans queasy, to say the least.
So the president chose to prove himself to the budget hawks, eliminating 65 federal programs and downsizing 63 others. Areas hardest hit include agriculture, environmental protection efforts, education, and the arts. The cuts make up a mere $4.9 billion in discretionary spending -- peanuts in federal budget terms, but affecting areas near and dear to liberal hearts. Democratic and moderate Republican lawmakers balked. But the move gave a nod to fiscal conservatives, reassuring them that Bush has seen the error of his ways and is not actually morphing into a reckless big-government profligate (i.e., a Democrat) before their very eyes.
"This is a heavy play to the Republican base," federal budget analyst Steve Collender told The Washington Post at the time. "He almost didn't have a choice, with the deficit so high and them so angry. The one thing he needs most is to make sure those people come out and vote."
It's working, sort of. Editorials on the conservative Heritage Foundation Web site have shifted in tone from "stop that runaway spending train!" to cautious approval. Republican lawmakers like Jeff Flake have cheered the move ("I think he picks up far more votes than he loses," Flake commented). But even conservatives are looking askance at the White House's claim that this plan will halve the deficit in five years, citing the fact that the budget omits any expenses for our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cost of those major military operations: TBA, conveniently, after the elections.
Reading Voters' Minds
Will this effort to appease conservatives hold sway with the voters, especially those middle-of-the-roaders? It's a gamble, and Bush is gambling that fear of terrorism will trump domestic concerns at the polling booth. The president has boosted defense and homeland security spending by $29 billion, while slashing popular education and job training programs. Aid to workers displaced by NAFTA has been cut, as has $400 billion for the Centers for Disease Control. This hands loads of campaign fodder to the Democrats, if they can use it -- and if voters weigh the issues the way liberals hope they do.
Survey data don't offer any clear answers, but lately the news has been encouraging for Democratic hopefuls. In a Gallup poll from last year, 91 percent of those questioned rated the economy as an "extremely important" issue for the president and lawmakers in 2004. An almost equal percent also rated terrorism at the same level, followed by education, health care and the budget deficit. So those domestic programs Bush thinks people will overlook in the face of war, well, it looks like people may not be as eager to belt-tighten as Bush hopes.
Recent polling shows voters increasingly doubtful about the president's performance. Approval ratings have fallen to their lowest level yet (although there's been recent uptick in the past few days), and a Feb. 1 Gallup poll shows Bush falling behind Kerry in voter preferences, 53 to 46 percent. As the Gallup analysis comments, "A review of historical trial-heat data from past elections shows it is rare for an incumbent president to be trailing at this stage in a campaign."
Bush isn't doing well on the issues, either: His approval rating on his handling of the economy is at 43 percent, and hasn't changed much since its all-time low of 42 percent last October, in spite of the administration's claims that things are looking up. In fact, a recent survey from the independent Quinnipiac University shows 52 percent of those questioned believe a Democratic administration would do a better job on the economy than Bush's White House. The president seems to be counting on the tax cuts winning points with voters -- but that's not looking too promising either. An ABC poll taken late last month showed 52 percent of adults saying they'd support axing the tax cut "if doing so helped to avoid a deficit in the federal budget," while only 32 percent would want the tax cut to stand.
Numbers on education aren't available, but Bush's approval on health care -- in spite of, or maybe because of, his support of a massive Medicare prescription drugs bill -- has slipped to 35 percent.
That leaves terrorism. If public opinion on the conflict in Iraq is anything to judge by, it's looking dicey for the president. He has plummeted from 61 percent approval/36 percent disapproval in early January to 46 percent approval/53 percent disapproval currently, according to Gallup. That's a drop of 32 points--pretty dramatic. But then, the increases in defense spending and homeland security will be hard for Democratic candidates to refute, especially given Bush's multi-million dollar campaign engine.
Ruy Teixeira of the progressive Public Opinion Watch thinks that the numbers look hopeful for Dems. "All this stuff is really wearing him down," he says. "That doesn't mean he'll lose the election, but it does mean that he's vulnerable in a way people wouldn't have dreamed of after 9/11."
Bush has had to walk a fine line between looking compassionate to swing voters and looking conservative to his Republican base. It may not pan out for him. Ordinary Americans may turn out to be more worried about their jobs, their health and their kids' educations than about terrorist acts, and Bush's apparent indifference may scare them away from the Republican camp. Whether the Democrats can actually exploit that chink in the White House armor remains to be seen, but you can bet they're eager to find out.
Natasha Hunter is a freelance writer living in Boston.