Cracks in the GOP base
Living up to its billing as the single most important event in the primary season, this week's Super Tuesday indeed proved decisive, knocking John Edwards out of the running and virtually assuring John Kerry of the Democratic nomination.
Meanwhile, having secured his party's nomination unopposed and possessed of an enormous war chest with which to crush his new-fledged foe, President Bush would seem to have a considerable advantage. Conventional wisdom has it that with a lock on the Republican base, Bush will be free to spend his time and money courting the all-important voters in the middle of the political spectrum. In effect, he will be able to say just about anything in the certain knowledge that his party is solidly behind him.
If Vermont is any indicator of national trends, however, (and the surprisingly influential campaign of Howard Dean would suggest that it is), then the recent voting may suggest a fatal flaw in this strategy, for while all eyes were focused on the Democratic result, a distinct pattern emerged on the Republican side that may loom large in the coming general election. Vermont Republicans, the numbers suggest, are not as solidly behind the president as some might have thought.
Out of a total 1,885 Republican votes cast in Brattleboro and outlying towns (representing less than a third of the total Democratic vote) a statistically significant 30 votes were write-ins for candidates other than Bush. The bulk of these were cast for John Kerry, with others for Howard Dean, John Edwards, and one each for Ralph Nader and Martha Stewart.
To be sure, such votes are not necessarily to be taken seriously, but keep in mind that these are registered Republicans voting at the outset of what promises to be a highly contested campaign season. As such, they point to the possibility that some portion of the Republican base may be prepared to bolt the ticket.
And it isn't as if they have not been given ample cause for disaffection. For those Republicans with truly conservative convictions, there is little to appreciate about the Bush record.
During the past four years the Bush tax cuts have been more than offset by a general shutdown of government funding for state and social programs, while at the same time the size of the government bureaucracy has been expanded at a record-setting rate.
Add to this the fact that a $500 billion surplus has been turned into an equally prodigious deficit, with financial and foreign-policy obligations surrounding the Iraq war stretching as far as the eye can see, and there is very little for traditional conservatives to warm up to here.
Indeed, contrary to the wishful thinking of neoconservative propagandists, Bush's popularity to date has had little to do with political ideology of any kind. (Slap the prefix neo- in front of a word and it can mean pretty much anything you want it to.) Instead, by casting himself as a defender of the American homeland, Bush has been able to build upon public fears of future terrorist attacks.
Such a political foundation is fraught with perils of its own, however, for fear has a way of dissipating over time, and in the event of another attack on the homeland the president will have to answer for associated lapses in intelligence and security precautions.
There is, of course, a powerful incentive among Republicans to retain the White House no matter what. But if Karl Rove and his ilk are basing their electoral calculus on the assumption of unshakable party allegiance, they may be in for a nasty surprise. A substantial number of Republicans may be neither as gullible nor as nakedly partisan as the strategists imagine.
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