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WSJ: Bush Proves Vulnerable Amid Political Discord

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Bush Proves Vulnerable

Amid Political Discord

Split on Iraq and Domestic Agenda

Heighten Political Risks Bush Faces



SELMA, Ala. – “Here we are, white and black together," the preacher declared Sunday, standing on a bridge where civil-rights marchers once faced attack. Republican and Democratic politicians sang, "Amen."

But signs of domestic discord lay just behind the linked arms and hopeful expressions at the commemoration of the 1965 march for voting rights. "Regime Change Begins at Home" one demonstrator's placard read; "Fight Power Not Iraq," read another.

As President Bush struggles with diplomatic opposition abroad, he also faces deepening divisions at home, on Iraq and on his entire domestic agenda. They aren't ordinary rifts: The country he leads toward war is more sharply divided on issues than it was before the past war with Iraq -- and perhaps before any other armed conflict since World War I.

Those divisions heighten the political risks Mr. Bush faces in pursuing a war of unknown costs at a time when the U.S. economy is hobbling. Just 20 months before the November 2004 election, his narrow margins of support at home and abroad make him vulnerable to setbacks in either arena.

"It is a very dangerous thing to go into a significant war with so much division," Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley says. Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman, elected narrowly in 1916 and 1948, both encountered severe political trouble and saw their Democratic Party thrashed after leading the nation into World War I and Korea, respectively.

Franklin Roosevelt entered World War II with a firmer political base, having won an unprecedented third term decisively in 1940 and commanding large majorities in Congress. He moved to buttress his domestic support nonetheless, declaring a shift from "Dr. New Deal" to "Dr. Win the War."

Mr. Bush has chosen a different course as 2004 draws closer. Seeing little prospect of substantially broadening his domestic base, his team is placing greater emphasis on mobilizing ideological adherents than on attracting large numbers of Democrats and independents. As a result, cautions Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann, "There is no safety net for this president."

The surge of national unity and pride that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks temporarily obscured the political deadlock made plain by the photo-finish 2000 election. But the contours of that deadlock -- pitting conservative constituencies that embrace Mr. Bush against liberal ones that oppose him -- have been gradually re-emerging in political battles over economic stimulus, Medicare, judicial nominations and homeland security.

The more than two dozen U.S. lawmakers who traveled to Alabama this past weekend underscored the point. Brought together by the Faith and Politics Institute, based in Washington, the group recreated the march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge 38 years ago. Their views echoed the retrospective consensus in support of the civil-rights movement from that era -- and the stark divisions that define domestic politics today.


Elected narrowly and holding thin majorities in Congress, President Bush moves toward war with a weaker political hand than some of his predecessors in the White House.

Franklin Roosevelt (D), World War II

1940 victory margin: 54%-44%

Party support in Congress: House: 267 D, 162 R; Senate: 66 D, 28 R

Next election: Won fourth term, Democrats held Congress

Lyndon Johnson (D), Vietnam

1964 victory margin: 61%-39%

Party support in Congress: House: 295 D, 140 R; Senate: 68 D, 32 R

Next election: Didn't run, Republicans won White House but not Congress

George H.W. Bush ®, Gulf War

1988 victory margin: 53%-46%

Party support in Congress: House: 267 D, 165 R; Senate: 56 D, 44 R

Next election: Defeated by Bill Clinton, Democrats held Congress

George W. Bush ®, Iraq

2000 victory margin: Lost popular vote, won Electoral College

Party support in Congress: House: 229 R, 205 D; Senate: 51 R, 48 D

Next election: ?

Sources: Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections, Vital Statistics on American Politics

Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas were both on hand -- hours after lining up on opposite sides of the filibuster Democrats have mounted against Mr. Bush's nomination of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Democratic Rep. Artur Davis, whose predominately black House district includes Selma, joined Republican counterpart Phil English, whose northwest Pennsylvania district is predominately white. Mr. Bush's proposed dividend-tax cut, Mr. Davis said, "does nothing for districts like mine," marked by high levels of poverty.

Mr. English, by contrast, described that same proposal as "what we need to juice the economy." He added, "I'm glad the president is prepared to be bold."

With political camps so polarized, Mr. Bush "has very little room to maneuver," said Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, whose skull was fractured by white resisters here in 1965 on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday.

Even if a war to oust Saddam Hussein goes smoothly, Mr. Lewis predicted, the White House will encounter difficulty sustaining support in a Congress fractured along party lines for the cost and hardship of a postwar occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. "It would take an incredible level of leadership," agreed Jack Kemp, the former Republican vice presidential nominee who joined Mr. Lewis on the recent pilgrimage to Selma.

To be sure, a broad base of domestic support is no guarantee presidents can survive wartime difficulty. Four months before the Selma march, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson won a landslide 1964 election over Republican Barry Goldwater. Three years later, strife over Vietnam and domestic upheaval at home drove him to abandon the quest for another term.

"The course of the war will trump everything," says conservative publisher William Kristol, who served in the first Bush administration and supports the aggressive White House stance on Iraq. Success will mute criticism of Mr. Bush's controversial course toward war, Mr. Kristol explained; failure would take an immense political toll, even if Mr. Bush's approval ratings hadn't plummeted from their post-Sept. 11 highs of above 80%.

In the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 54% of Americans expressed support for Mr. Bush's performance (see the poll). That was slightly less than the 57% support that his father recorded weeks before Operation Desert Storm. In addition, opinion on the current president is more sharply divided along party lines, with Democrats expressing more intense opposition and Republicans displaying stronger support than they did for the first President Bush.

The elder Bush's political demise in 1992, a year after his Desert Storm triumph, proved wartime success won't necessarily strengthen a president domestically. Many Republicans in Congress hope military victory will help the White House overcome opposition to the president's plans for tax policy, overhauling Medicare, and judicial nominations. The entrenched battle lines of contemporary domestic politics provide reason for doubt.

"It's unlikely to be a big political boost for him," says John Mueller, an Ohio State University scholar of the effects of war on presidents' political standing. Public attention will return to domestic arguments "with lightning speed."

Write to John Harwood at john.harwood@wsj.com

Updated March 12, 2003


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