President George Bush's renomination of Judge Charles Pickering and his announcement to join in opposition to the University of Michigan's affirmative action-like admission system serve to highlight the emerging dilemma confronting the president and his party as they prepare for the 2004 election.
According to a recent internal GOP poll widely discussed by pundits, in order to win in 2004, President Bush will have to lay claim to at least two million more minority votes than he received in 2000.
My first reaction was that this number had to be in error. Then I looked at some demographic data and changed my mind. Two million may be a modest estimate.
Consider the dramatic changes in our immigration pattern. As late as 1970, only 30 years ago, the top 10 list of countries sending their tired and poor to America read as it had read for decades before: Italy, Germany, Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom, Poland, Soviet Union, Cuba, Ireland, Austria.
By 1980, Mexico had gone to the top of a list that now also included the Philippines and Korea. More Third World countries showed on the 1990 top 10 list. Then came the 2000 census numbers: Mexico, China, Philippines, India, Cuba, Vietnam, El Salvador, Korea, Dominican Republic, Canada.
A century ago, 85 percent of our foreign-born population came from Europe. By 2000, that percentage had dropped to 15 percent. European ancestry continues to dominate the aggregate percentages. Half of the U.S. population traces its ancestry to Europe, including the UK and Ireland. But that percentage is dropping and has already changed the political and economic landscape in many of America's largest cities. L.A. reports that almost 30 percent of its population was not born in the United States; San Francisco, 28 percent; New York, 23 percent.
What this means for the President's reelection chances is just this: While he needs his base to win, he can't win again if he relies only on his base. And what about that base? Strongest in the South, parts of the Midwest and the mountain states, the GOP base is male-dominated and relies heavily on the zeal of the religious right.
But to adopt any strategy that might alienate that base confronts Bush with a Catch-22 problem. If Bush holds together his most zealous core, he risks being rolled by demographic changes. Most new voters live in cities, and most are affected every day by the range of social concerns that Democrats have struggled with, albeit unevenly, over the years. Offering continued access to higher education -- the great leveler in American society -- for athletes and "legacies" while curtailing minorities' access to college probably won't win many converts for him.
The President's attachment to business, both large and small, is not likely to fix the problem, either. Indeed, it may make it worse. In a recent New Republic article, Jonathan Chait quotes from a column that appeared in, of all places, National Review Online, which quotes Republican economist Bruce Bartlett saying that "policy analysis has tended to be filled by those in the White House who look at issues solely in terms of their political implications." Chait, in agreement, goes on to argue that "this administration is subservient to economic pressure groups to an extent that surpasses any administration in modern history."
Bush is too cozy with lobbyists. What he sees as good for business may not always be good for the economy: secret energy deals, structured deficit spending, continued support for all monopolies, zero support for stricter automobile fuel-efficiency standards, no action on problems in the health care system, more tax cuts for the very wealthy. Chait argues that in the policy areas affecting labor, the environment or consumer interests, Bush has failed to give advocates even a "meaningful hearing."
It isn't lost on the public that the economy, after two years of Bush's leadership, has not responded favorably. The president's declining ratings underline this harsh reality. After all, the central lesson of his father's single term is that the economy trumps military adventures -- even when they're successful.
Then there are the lingering effects of the Trent Lott affair. The GOP's nativist impulse hasn't vanished, nor has it been rejected by Republican leadership. Nor is it likely that a newer and more attractive "message carrier" sitting in the Senate majority seat will fix the problem. It goes deeper. Consider: Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), we now know according to polls, didn't lose his Senate seat in Georgia because, as was first thought, of his qualms about war with Iraq. No, he lost because of his opposition to the Confederate flag.
If Bush is to win over those necessary minority votes in 2004, he must figure out a way to marginalize -- without demobilizing -- the very base that put him into office in the first place.
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