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Power Shift

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In a fascinating and provocative analysis of the 2004 elections, Michael Nelson, a political scientist at Rhodes College in Memphis, makes a strong case that last year's election was a clear departure from recent elections.

In a just-released book with chapters from eight other distinguished political scientists -- including the inimitable Gary C. Jacobson of the University of California, San Diego -- Nelson notes that while President Bush's victory margin was narrower than those of presidents Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Bill Clinton in 1996, theirs were "lonely landslides," as they were unable to gain House and Senate seats for their parties.

Bush, however, enters his second term with full control of the government, holding the White House, House and Senate. According to a June 2003 Washington Post article, Bush was "explicit that he doesn't want to win with 55 percent and have a 51-49 Senate," said an aide who referred to the president's desire to "expand the governing coalition."

Put aside questions of Bush's expansion of a small winning margin in 2000 and the fact that an extraordinary mid-decade congressional redistricting in Texas and several Democratic Senate retirements seats in the South were key to the GOP's Capitol Hill gains. The fact is that Bush did accomplish what Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton were unable to do.

While there are certainly countervailing arguments and data, Nelson makes a pretty good case.

In the last 10 presidential elections since 1968, Republicans have amassed 3,381 electoral votes to just 1,949 for Democrats, a 63 percent to 37 percent split.

He points to the fact that neither of the Democrats elected president during this period exceeded the 50.8 percent of the popular vote Bush received in 2004. Jimmy Carter picked up 50.1 percent, the only Democrat, Nelson points out, to get a majority of the presidential vote since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Nelson makes another fascinating point. After noting that the last three Democrats elected president -- Johnson, Carter and Clinton -- were all southerners, he points out that the pool of southern Democrats to nominate is drying up. Only four of the region's 11 governors and four of its 22 senators are Democratic. In 1976, when Carter won the nomination, 15 senators and eight governors in the region were Democrats. The pattern in the House is similar.

Nelson makes a good argument that the balloting in November marked a point when Bush did become a majority president. Of course, the debate over whether Republicans are truly a majority party can go on and on.

I have argued previously that along with Bush's enhanced stature from his handling of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and his unmatched campaign operation, the election turned as much on Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and his campaign's weaknesses as it did on Bush. How many people do you know who voted FOR Kerry, not AGAINST Bush?

But if Republicans aren't a majority party, they are certainly close.

That brings us to a point made recently by Adam Nagourney in the New York Times: As a result of growing big, majority parties inevitably become fractured. As the party becomes increasingly diverse, what holds it all together becomes more tenuous.

The article notes that while social and cultural conservatives applauded the effort by congressional Republicans and Bush to intercede on behalf of Terri Schiavo's parents and some even criticize Bush for not doing more, more secular and economic-oriented Republicans condemn the efforts, saying it was a intrusion on states' rights and that Congress and the president had better things to do.

Other divisions can be seen on economic policy, with some Republicans in state legislatures and Washington balking at federal tax cuts in the face of deficits and spending cuts. Simply put, if you want to keep a party cohesive, keep it small.

All of this is taking place at a time when it is unclear how successful Bush will be with his second-term agenda.

As Congress returned last week, the talk wwas whether the last few weeks have changed the preliminary assessment made after the last recess that the president's approach to restructuring Social Security is dead. It is unlikely that town meetings during the recent recess will render any different conclusion.

Then there is the budget fight. The budget this year is likely to showcase Republican conflicts on politically incendiary issues such as cuts in the Medicaid program and allowing oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., is the lead sponsor of an effort to head off cuts in Medicaid. And Democratic Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana provided votes necessary to attach ANWR drilling provisions to the fiscal 2006 budget.

In short, whether Republicans are a majority party and Bush is a majority president or not, these second-term obstacles, as his re-elected predecessors painfully learned, are not easily overcome and the challenges over the next few months are awfully daunting.

 
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