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Revolt of the Middle?

In E.J. Dionne's column yesterday, "Revolt of the Middle", he remarked:

...[S]omething important has happened since President Bush's inauguration. America's moderates may not be screaming, but they're in revolt. Many who reluctantly supported the president and the Republicans in 2004 are turning away. The party's agenda on Social Security, judges and the Terri Schiavo case is out of touch with where moderate voters stand. Worse for Bush and his party, most moderates have a practical, problem-solving view of government and think these issues are far less important than shoring up a shaky economy and improving living standards.

The moderates have rebelled before. This period in American politics is beginning to take on the contours of the years leading up to the 1992 election. That's when Ross Perot led an uprising of the angry middle and Bill Clinton waged war on the "brain-dead politics of both parties." Bush's decision to read the 2004 election as a broad mandate for whatever policies he chose to put forward now looks like a major mistake. In fact, Bush won narrowly in 2004, and he won almost entirely because just enough middle-of-the-road voters decided they trusted him more than they did John Kerry to deal with terrorism.

That seems entirely correct to me. Bush is losing the center of American politics which, as Alan Abramowitz points out in his post on "The New Independent Voter", leans Democratic to begin with. Bush's actions seem designed to accentuate those leanings, rather than counter them, and have contributed mightily to his declining political fortunes.

The new Washington Post/ABC News (WP/ABC) poll provides exceptionally clear evidence of these declining fortunes. Bush's approval rating is now 47 percent approval/50 percent disapproval, as low as it's even been in this poll. His ratings on the economy and Iraq are, respectively, 40/56 (his second-lowest ever) and 42/57. On energy policy, his rating is 35/54. And on Social Security, his approval rating has sunk to 31/64, by far his worst rating ever.

Other results in the poll underscore how Bush is losing the political fight on Social Security. The WP/ABC poll has asked the following question since 2000:

Would you support or oppose a plan in which people who chose to could invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market?

Note how the question does not mention any tradeoffs and does not associate the plan with Bush--both of which tend to depress support for privatization. Indeed, this question has about as favorable a wording for privatization as you are likely to see and has never returned a negative response....until now. But now it yields 51-45 opposition. And when combined with a followup to supporters on whether they would suppport the plan if it "reduced the rate of growth of guaranteed Social Security benefits for future retirees", opposition skies to an overwhelming 70 percent.

On who the public trusts to do a better job on Social Security, less than a third (32 percent) now say they trust Bush, compared to half who pick the Democrats in Congress. That 18 point gap in trust is by far Bush's worst performance ever on this indicator.

On Iraq, the public continues to regard the situation with little enthusiasm. By 54-44, they say the war was not worth fighting and, by 58-39, they say the US is bogged down in Iraq.

As for the current brouhaha on ending the filibuster for judicial nominees, the public is overwhelmingly opposed (66-26) to "changing Senate rules to make it easier for the Republicans to confirm Bush's judicial appointments." That includes 80 percent opposition among Democrats and 70 percent opposition among independents, demonstrating once again how the GOP's actions are activating the political center against them.

The poll also demonstrates that Bush and the GOP are not faring well on the values front, supposedly a critical underpinning of their hold on power. Consider these data from the poll:

1. By 63-28, the public supports embryonic stem cell research.

2. By 56-40, the public supports some legal recognition of gay relationships and, by 56-39, they oppose a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, preferring that states make their own laws on gay marriage.

3. By 56-42, the public says abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

4. By 51-47, the public thinks Bush does not share their values and, by 58-40, believes Bush does not "understand the problems of people like you".

5. And how about this one: by 47-38, the public says that Democrats, not Republicans, better represent their own personal values.

6. Does the public actually believe political leaders should rely on their religious beliefs in making policy decisions? No: by 57-40, they reject that proposition, including by 65-27 among Democrats, by 59-38 among independents and by 58-36 among moderates--once again showing how today's political center leans very close to the Democrats. Along the same lines, independents (46 percent) and moderates (45 percent) are almost as likely as Democrats (52 percent) to think religious conservatives have too much influence over the Republican party.

The center is there for the taking. When these voters lean Democratic to begin with and are edging close to outright revolt against the way Republicans are currently running the country, Democrats would be foolish to ignore this opportunity. Mobilization is great, but without the center it's defeatable. With the center, it's not. Need I say more?