How Bush helped the GOP commit suicide

A new study shows that unless the Democrats self-destruct, they could walk into the White House in '08 -- and might hold it for years.

Published March 27, 2007 11:47AM (EDT)

Democrats should give two cheers for George W. Bush. He and his political mastermind, Karl Rove, dreamed of achieving a permanent Republican majority. Instead, his disastrous presidency has dealt a devastating blow to the GOP, one from which it may not recover for many years.

That's the inescapable import of a major study of American voters' values and attitudes by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, released March 22. The study finds that voters have turned dramatically away from the GOP since Bush took office. Iraq, of course, is the single biggest reason for this. (A separate Pew poll, released on March 26, shows that 59 percent of Americans want their congressional representatives to support a bill calling for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq by August 2008, with only 33 percent opposed.) But even more troubling for Republican strategists is the fact that underlying attitudes and beliefs are trending against them. The study's implication is that the GOP, especially in its current far-right incarnation, was facing serious structural, long-term problems anyway, and that Bush delivered the coup de grâce.

To Democrats and left-leaning independents who were preparing to either commit suicide or move to Provence after the 2004 elections: Put down the gun and back away from the baguette. America may not be the Bush League, after all.

I asked Andrew Kohut, the Pew Center's director, if there was a single ray of hope for the GOP for 2008 in his group's report. He pointed out that if the poll showed Americans turning away from the GOP, they weren't very enthusiastic about the Democrats, either. In fact, he noted that "the favorable ratings for the Democratic Party really haven't improved that much since 1994." And he added that voters in presidential elections are heavily influenced by the qualities of individual candidates, not just party affiliation.

But aside from those rather feeble caveats, Kohut said the writing was on the wall for the GOP. "With the kind of discontent there is with this administration and national conditions, unless things change dramatically there's going to be a vote for change, not for continuity," Kohut said.

Particularly worrying for the GOP are the trend lines among independents, a swing group Republicans desperately need to hold. "The independents seem to be coming closer to the Democrats these days," Kohut said.

The most explosive statistic in the survey shows a mass exodus from the GOP -- a defection that can only be blamed on Bush and the Iraq war. In 2002, the number of people who identified as Republicans or Republican-leaning was the same as those who identified as Democrats or Democratic-leaning: 43 percent. But today, 50 percent of the public identify as Democrats or leaning that way, while only 35 percent identify as Republicans or Republican-leaning. In other words, in just five years Democrats have gone from being tied with the Republicans to holding a 15 percent lead.

In historic terms, Kohut said this shift is quite large. He cautioned, "It's mostly the independents, and the independents can swing back the other way." But then he added, "But there are no indications in the short run that they will."

Considering that Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 and Bush barely won in 2004, a shift of this size has vast ramifications. It's true that gerrymandering and the vagaries of the Electoral College give the Republicans a built-in head start. It also remains to be seen whether the Democratic political machine is capable of challenging the GOP juggernaut. And unexpected real-world events could intervene. Nonetheless, the Pew poll strongly suggests that unless the Democrats completely self-destruct, they should be the odds-on favorites to win the presidency in 2008 -- and perhaps for years after.

Which could lead to a fascinating intra-party debate about whether the Democrats should play it safe by nominating the candidate with the most centrist appeal (presumably Hillary Clinton, although that is sure to be contested) or capitalize on having a rare head start in the polls by going with a glamorous but risky newcomer like Barack Obama.

But the significance of the Pew study, the latest in a series that started in 1987, goes beyond Bush or the upcoming election. On virtually every issue, it shows that the public holds views that are closer to those of the Democrats than the Republicans -- and that long-term trends are moving in that direction, too. For the GOP, its move-to-the-right strategy paid short-term dividends, but that ploy is now looking like a case of live by the sword, die by the sword. Its greatest challenge is now to find a way to recapture the political center without alienating the right-wing base to which it has so effectively pandered. For it looks like hard-right positions aren't playing in Peoria anymore.

Take public support for government programs, a key index of difference between the parties. Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe that "government should care for those who can't care for themselves" -- up 12 percent from 1994, the year of Newt Gingrich's anti-government "Contract With America."

Another remarkable finding concerned social conservatism -- the issue that inspired so much hand-wringing after the 2004 elections, with many pundits opining that most Democrats were simply too liberal and secular-minded on "values" issues to win. This was always overblown -- and, in fact, this and earlier Pew surveys have consistently found that Americans have been growing less conservative on social values issues over the last 20 years.

The survey asks six questions dealing with social values, including homosexuality, the place of women in society, and whether one has "old-fashioned values about family and marriage." As the report sums up its findings: "In 1987, about half of the survey's respondents (49 percent) gave conservative answers to at least four of the six questions. In 2007, just 30 percent did so. This trend has occurred in all major social, political, and demographic groups in the population. While Republicans remain significantly more conservative than Democrats or independents on social values, they too have become substantially less conservative over this period. The decline in social conservatism is being hastened by generational change, as each new age cohort has come into adulthood with less conservative views on the questions than did their predecessors."

For example, the number of Americans who said they had "old-fashioned values about family and marriage" dropped from 87 in 1990 to 76 in 2007. Still more striking was the change in attitudes toward gay teachers: In 1990 49 percent of those polled said that school boards had the right to fire homosexual teachers. In 2007, only 28 percent did.

Since his group's studies have shown that Americans have been growing less conservative for 20 years, how did Kohut explain the 2004 elections? "Well, I'd say that was a case where we were still being affected by the 9/11 attacks," he said. "There was a lot of concern about Kerry's strength of decision making, and Bush's leadership was still positively regarded. And second terms are different from open elections."

If "values" isn't a winning card in 2008, national security may not be, either. The Pew study casts serious doubt on whether Republicans can still count on this being an ace in the hole. In 2002, after the 9/11 attacks, 62 percent of Americans agreed that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength. Five years and one war in Iraq later, that figure has declined sharply, to 49 percent. Republican support for that proposition remains overwhelming and unchanged at 72 percent, versus 40 percent of Democrats (down from 55 percent in 2002). But the critical figure is the independents. Only 46 percent of independents agree, while 51 percent disagree. This suggests that the Democratic fear of being labeled "weak on national security" is overblown and may be caused more by unconvincing attempts to appear "tough" than by actual policy positions.

A similar finding emerged from perhaps the study's oddest question: "We should try to get even with any country that tries to take advantage of the U.S." In 2002, 61 percent of Americans agreed with this explicit endorsement of revenge as a guiding principle of foreign policy -- a fact that says a lot about our national psychology after 9/11, and one that Bush took full advantage of. Today, however, that number has plummeted to 40 percent. The self-righteous joys of retribution, long a right-wing mainstay, have come up against cold reality -- and lost.

Religious fervor, too, declined somewhat, although it remains extremely high here compared to other industrialized nations. A stunning 79 percent agreed with the statement "we will all be called before God at the Judgment Day to answer for our sins." But an increasing number of people admit to occasionally doubting whether the God who they are sure will be judging them actually exists, and 12 percent say they are secular or unaffiliated with any religious tradition -- up from 8 percent in 1987. And, in an important finding, 17 percent of independents classify themselves as secular, considerably more than the 11 percent of Democrats who do. (Only 5 percent of Republicans so classify themselves.)

In another key finding, increasing numbers of people say they are disturbed by the gap between rich and poor: 73 percent agree with the statement that "the rich get richer while the poor get poorer," up from 58 percent in 2003. In another ominous development for the GOP, the number of wealthier Americans who agreed rose most dramatically: 65 percent of those who made more than $75,000 a year agreed, up from 51 percent in 2003. This could be a response to Enron and the business-corruption scandals that tainted the Bush years (and which were pushed under the rug by the Iraq war) as well as to the widening income gap in the country, Bush's regressive tax policies and skyrocketing executive compensation. Whatever the reason, it isn't music to the party of the rich.

A large partisan gap appeared on the issue of personal satisfaction with one's financial situation. While in 1994 all groups expressed similar levels of satisfaction with their finances, Democrats and independents are increasingly dissatisfied, while Republicans are increasingly satisfied. This disparity is most notable in lower-to-middle-income groups: 75 percent of Republicans making $50,000 a year or less expressed satisfaction, while only 40 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of independents did.

One of the few findings that the GOP could take heart in concerned attitudes toward the size of government. The two parties were, as expected, polarized on this issue: 60 percent of Democrats said they preferred a larger government that provided more services, while 68 percent of Republicans said they preferred a smaller government providing fewer services. The crucial independents leaned toward smaller government -- but only by 48 percent to 40 percent. And that number may be offset by the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans, 66 percent, favor government-guaranteed universal health insurance, even if it means raising taxes. Even a majority of those who believe in smaller government supported this.

The survey does not paint a uniformly flattering picture of America. A scary 43 percent of Americans think torture can often or sometimes be justified -- perhaps a tribute to the work of "24" creator and Rush Limbaugh pal Joel Surnow. In a singularly telling finding, 45 percent of those who identified themselves as liberal Democrats said torture was never justified, compared to 18 percent of conservative Republicans. These contrasting responses should be deeply troubling to traditional conservatives; they show how badly their movement has degenerated under Gingrich and Bush. When did being a conservative start meaning signing off on torture? Isn't there a ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" in the Eighth Amendment of some old document drawn up by some geezers in powdered wigs that conservatives are supposed to care passionately about? And what would Jesus think about torture? Apparently being a conservative no longer means believing in a transcendental morality.

I asked Kohut if the current study's findings were attributable more to George W. Bush's presidency or to underlying trends. "I think it's a little bit of both," he said. "If you look at the party affiliation trends and the trend on fewer people thinking a strong military is the best way to assure peace, then I would say that those are reactions to discontent with Bush and discontent with Iraq, which are bound up together. On the other hand, if you look at the long-term trend on greater support for the social safety net, feeling that government should give people certain basic guarantees, that looks more like cycles of history stuff, where we had decline in these sentiments in the mid-'90s, and now they're going back to where they were in the late '80s."

To what did he attribute this cyclical swing to more liberal positions? "The pollsters said, 'Beats the hell out of me!'" Kohut said, laughing. "Well, people think and rethink issues, and I think the public at large does that. I think there was concern about welfare and so welfare reform got a good reception in the '90s, and now I think there's concern about poor people. I think what we may have seen is that Katrina furthered this trend that had been growing anyway. Katrina exposed to many people, 'God, do Americans really live like that? Looks like Haiti!'"

For liberals, it's much too early to pop the champagne. But when you add up the cyclical swings, the long-term trends toward greater liberalism, and the enormous national rejection of George W. Bush, his catastrophic war and just about everything he stands for, the future for the GOP looks bleak. Maybe you can't fool all of the people all of the time, after all.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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2008 Elections Democratic Party George W. Bush Iraq Middle East Republican Party