Here we go again.
Several weeks ago, this column suggested that political insiders were noticing evidence that the 2002 election cycle might be much like the one of 10 years ago. The 1992 national election brought to the polls many voters who viewed the country as adrift.
The post-Gulf War popularity of then-President George Bush was waning. Bush was under attack not only by the Democrats, but also from within his own party. Pat Buchanan staged a stronger-than-expected appeal to the conservative base of the GOP during the primary season. And while Buchanan lost, the damage to the Bush re-election effort was revealed in the form of a lukewarm turnout among hard-core conservatives in the fall elections.
Why did Buchanan mount his battle against an incumbent Republican? Back then, it was the concept that Bush had "caved in" to the Democrats on key issues, such as a tax increase. Now, a decade later, there is mounting evidence that a critical portion of the Republican base is once again becoming anxious and discontented.
Of course there are differences between the two time periods. In '92, it was the president himself who was fighting for re-election. This year, it's a battle for Congress that is at stake. And there is another critical difference -- in 1992, talk radio superstars such as Rush Limbaugh were just starting their rise to prominence. And Web sites such as Matt Drudge's popular "Drudge Report" were not yet providing millions of online readers with minute-by-minute updates and commentary on world events.
Now top GOP political strategists reportedly are beginning to get seriously worried that the mistakes of elections past might be getting ready for a repeat performance now, in this age of more rapid and sophisticated political communications.
On Monday, Matt Drudge informed the army of visitors to his Web site what conservative icon Rush Limbaugh had already told his own loyal legions -- that conservatism had apparently been "hijacked." While Limbaugh's comments were primarily reserved for the Bush administration's apparent flip-flop on the issue of global warming -- Bush now says it's a man-made problem -- top Republican strategists reportedly have more to worry about than just a government report that spells out the believed human causes and future negative effects of an environmental phenomenon that Bush once refused to even acknowledge.
The Republicans are concerned that other Bush-led initiatives, such as his siding with Senate Democrats over amnesty for hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens, and his flirtation with a massive and aggressive build-up of the IRS, are new potential sources of alienation of the far right.
Several longtime Republican leaders fear the president's justified devotion of time and energy to dealing with a seemingly endless series of international crises -- as well as the ongoing duty of providing security at home -- has left the domestic agenda in "the hands of a football team with no coach, quarterback or playbook."
Significantly, Bush's strong approval ratings have been coming not only from the traditional Republican voter, but also from moderate Democrats, whom this column identified last March as "Bush Democrats." The question now appears to be whether the administration's apparent move to the center -- or as some might suggest, left of center on issues such as global warming -- will further strengthen his appeal to these otherwise traditional Democratic voters, many of whom indicated in our March poll that they would likely support Bush in 2004.
Even if Bush continues to pick up crossover support from Democrats, will his recent actions keep Republicans excited about their party's congressional candidates this fall -- most of whom are unlikely to garner many traditional Democrat votes?
In 1992, former President Bush managed to defeat Buchanan without creating an irreparable split in his party. But he did so, in part, by admitting that his decision to cave into Democratic pressure and increase taxes was a mistake. Nevertheless, the ensuing policy confusion caused some voters to either drift toward Independent candidate Ross Perot or sit at home when the election rolled around.
The question that top political experts both in Washington and across the country are pondering this week is whether the younger Bush's apparent caving in to the Democrats will prove to be a passing concept, or whether it will sow the seeds that will create a confused Republican base come this November.
Matt Towery writes a syndicated column based out of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. He can be reached at www.InsiderAdvantage.com.
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