Political Hay

Bush in Trouble

Why his lousy poll numbers? Ask some disillusioned conservative Republicans.

By 6.28.04

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With the release of a recent Washington Post/ABCNews opinion poll, it seems that President Bush is in more trouble than ever before. His approval number still hangs at 47%, and now he has lost his once big edge over Kerry on the War on Terrorism.

Yet the poll has some flaws, namely that it uses as respondents either adults or registered voters rather than the more accurate "likely voters." Thus, it is not the best predictor of the November election. Nevertheless, this poll, like so many others, shows that Bush's numbers continue their general downward slide of the last few months. One wonders how much longer this will have to continue before conservative pundits begin seriously talking about a Bush loss and speculating about the nature of a Kerry Administration.

Some of the erosion in Bush's numbers comes from a rather surprising cohort. While Iraq has undoubtedly hurt Bush, he is also facing trouble among his base. Bruce Bartlett recently speculated that Bush has lost the support of fiscal conservatives with his betrayal on a number of issues: tariffs, higher spending on education and agriculture, support for the National Endowment of the Arts, and, of course, the prescription drug bill.

A look at the historical numbers from the Washington Post/ABCNews poll suggests this is true. During most of 2003, Bush's approval numbers among Republicans were above or very close to 90%. Yet in October, Bush started to post consistent numbers in the mid-to high 80s among Republicans, which coincides with the debate over the Medicare prescription drug bill. In early January the numbers jumped again to the mid-90s, likely the residual from the capture of Saddam Hussein. Since then, however, Bush has never broken 90% among Republicans, at times -- March and May -- sinking to the low 80s.

While it is true that this poll, as noted above, has some limitations, those identifying themselves as Republicans in such polls are more likely to vote than those who identify themselves as independents. Bartlett concludes that these disaffected fiscal conservatives have nowhere to go, since Kerry is worse. Indeed, on November 2 they might just go nowhere, opting to stay home.

HAPPILY, THIS IS NOT a cause for panic. This problem is, unlike the situation in Iraq, much easier to solve. Bush has at least four things he can do between now and November that would bring fiscal conservatives back into the fold:

Veto the Transportation Bill: The transportation bill before Congress is a mess of pork and overspending. The Senate version calls for $318 billion in spending while the House version calls for $284 billion. The Administration has said the President will veto any bill costing more than $256 billion, but has recently suggested it could go along with one of $275 billion as long as it didn't raise taxes or increase the deficit. Bad idea. Stick with the $256 billion figure, and veto anything even a penny over. Such a veto will send a signal to fiscal conservatives that the Bush Administration takes their complaints seriously.

Fight for Welfare Reform: The reauthorization of the best social policy reform in the last twenty years is stalled in the Senate by none other than Ted Kennedy. Bush should campaign on this because welfare reform is a winner not only with fiscal conservatives but also independents. It also gives him an opportunity to put pressure on his opponent. Why Bush isn't calling on John Kerry to demand his fellow Massachusetts Senator to end his filibuster is a bit of a mystery.

Promote Consumer-Driven Health Care: Rep. John Shadegg and Speaker Dennis Hastert have just introduced a bill that would allow individuals to purchase health insurance from any state in the nation. State governments currently drive up the cost of health-care by mandating that insurance must cover certain conditions, whether the health-care consumer wants such coverage or not. The Shadegg-Hastert bill would allow consumers to buy insurance from states that have fewer mandates and hence cheaper insurance. If Bush were to get behind this bill and couple it with his proposal to give tax credits to individuals for the purchase of insurance, he would further appeal to fiscal conservatives and close some of the gap in the polls that exists between him and Kerry on the issue of health care.

Campaign on Social Security Reform: Although the Bush camp has said the President will campaign on the issue of personal accounts, so far it has been little more than a fizzle. The issue worked well for Republicans in 2002, and that was when the stock market was near a three-year low. Now the market has recovered, so the issue should be even more of a winner. Will the Bush Campaign run TV ads emphasizing Bush and Kerry's differences on this issue? It should.

These four proposals would help Bush win back support of fiscal conservatives and have appeal among independents. They won't substitute for Bush winning back voters' confidence in his ability to handle Iraq. But they can add to it.

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About the Author

David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.