HOW HE SEES IT For Bush, half the country is enough

George W. Bush may be more comfortable operating with a lower public approval rating than any president in modern times. That sounds like a source of strength, but it also may be a weakness that is pushing Bush and the GOP toward a dangerous confrontation with Senate Democrats over the courts.
Every White House says the president isn't concerned about his polls. In Bush's case that actually seems true.
At this point in their second term, each of his re-elected predecessors since Dwight D. Eisenhower received positive job performance marks from more than half the country in Gallup surveys. Almost all polls show Bush's approval rating below, sometimes well below, the 50 percent level. Yet, "the Bush people are very comfortable operating at this margin," says veteran GOP pollster Bill McInturff.
That attitude partly reflects Bush's belief that a key to leadership is resolve, regardless of public opinion. From that perspective, poor poll ratings can become a badge of honor.
Calm and calculated
But the calm also reflects a political calculation among Bush's strategists. In their eyes, mass opinion doesn't matter as much as the attitude of the voters motivated to turn up on election day. As long as the president pleases his base, they believe they can produce an electorate more sympathetic to Bush and the GOP than the country generally. That means Bush and his party can survive ratings with the general public that might sink other presidents.
"These (job approval) numbers are an interesting discussion, but what matters most is who composes the electorate a year and a half from now," says Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for Bush's re-election campaign.
This strategy was the key to Bush's win in November. Exit polls showed that Democrat John F. Kerry outpolled Bush significantly among moderates and narrowly with independents. But Bush significantly increased the share of Republicans and conservatives in the electorate from 2000. And they provided him margins lopsided enough to offset his mediocre performance among swing voters.
Bush's congressional strategy follows from his electoral strategy. In issues such as Social Security and taxes, Bush has usually proposed policies that enthuse most Republicans and enrage most Democrats. Most often, he has preferred to pass his initiatives with a skintight partisan majority than to compromise to attract more Democrats (and sometimes even moderate Republicans).
This hardball approach has allowed Bush to advance much of his agenda, often by the slimmest of margins (such as the recent 51-49 Senate vote approving drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). It's also helped him maintain enormous support among rank-and-file Republicans.
Inherent cost
But this success has come at the cost of widening the country's political divisions. Bush's electoral strategy makes him inherently less sensitive than most presidents to the concerns of voters outside his core coalition. He appears utterly content to operate as president of half the country. The gap between Bush's approval rating among voters in his own party and the opposition is the largest ever recorded. Bush's approval rating among moderates in Gallup surveys hasn't exceeded 50 percent since January 2004, and he's passed that milestone among independents just twice in the last year.
Only a president focused so much more on his base than moderate opinion might go along with the explosive showdown over judicial nominations now approaching. Frustrated with Democratic resistance to several of Bush's appointees, Senate Republicans are nearing a historic effort to bar the use of the filibuster against judicial nominees. If Republicans succeed, Bush's judges could win Senate confirmation with 51 votes. Current rules require 60 votes to break a filibuster.
Escalation factor
That would please conservatives clamoring to move more of Bush's edgiest choices onto the courts. But there's evidence senators have used extended speech to delay action -- the legislative maneuver that became known as the filibuster -- since the first Congress. Eliminating it for judges would radically escalate partisan conflict on Capitol Hill and deepen the political division that has characterized Bush's presidency.
The consequences could radiate in many directions. Some business lobbyists worry that a filibuster ban would inspire a Democratic counterattack fierce enough to derail virtually all other legislation. Even some conservative groups (like Gun Owners of America) fear that if Republicans prohibit the use of the filibuster for judges today, a future Democratic Senate might bar it for liberal causes it prizes, like gun control.
Most ominous are the implications for the next Supreme Court vacancy. In a country so closely divided, Bush would best serve the national interest by selecting a nominee with broad appeal. He would be more likely to meet that standard if he chose someone who could attract 60 Senate votes. That's not as difficult as it sounds. Of the nine Supreme Court Justices, only Clarence Thomas was confirmed with fewer than 60 votes. All of the others, except Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, attracted at least 87 votes.
If the filibuster falls, Bush might be more tempted to select a highly ideological Supreme Court nominee acceptable at most to half the Senate (and the country). Such a fight would make the bitterness over Terri Schiavo seem placid.
Accepting responsibility
Both parties have a responsibility to avert a filibuster showdown with a deal to approve some of Bush's backlogged judges and establish reasonable procedures for future consultation. But the greatest obligation rests with Bush. His political strategy and definition of leadership often seem to preclude the building of consensus. But that should be one of a president's highest priorities. In the impending fight over the filibuster, and the approaching likelihood of a Supreme Court vacancy, Bush can lead just his party, or transcend it to lead the country.
X Brownstein is a national political correspondent for the Times.

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