An Uncommon Challenge

onscious of his fragile electoral mandate, President George W. Bush arrived in Washington singing the praises of bipartisan cooperation and exhibiting a Clintonesque passion for ethnic and gender diversity in his initial choices of Cabinet officials and top White House aides.

The symbolism of Bush's early actions matched the gracious rhetoric of his delayed victory speech, in which he declared that he "was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation." By conspicuously filling key positions with women, African-Americans and Latinos, he extended an olive branch to major voting blocs that he failed to carry in November's election. (Exit polls indicated that Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore prevailed among women by 55 percent to 42 percent, among blacks by 90 percent to 9 percent and among Hispanics by 62 percent to 35 percent.) Despite these divides, Americans in many ways are culturally more homogeneous than ever thanks to the pervasive influences of new communications technologies, mass entertainment and news media conglomerates. Nonetheless, some scholars believe the nation is fracturing along multiple demographic fault lines.

One such expert, University of Michigan demographer William H. Frey, sees an America that has been Balkanized into four distinct geopolitical subdivisions that have differing expectations of the federal government. Viewed from Frey's perspective, Bush must find ways to please distinctly different electorates as he seeks to consolidate his standing as the leader of a single nation and shore up his political base for 2004. Bush has the most work to do in what Frey refers to as Melting Pot America. This noncontiguous political enclave, which includes California, Florida, Hawaii, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and the District of Columbia, accounts for 32 percent of the votes in the electoral college. Since 1990, the voting-age populations of these jurisdictions have swelled dramatically with the influx of immigrant minorities, primarily of Hispanic and Asian heritage.

Although Bush won handsomely in his home state of Texas and eked out a disputed victory in Florida, Melting Pot America voted strongly Democratic in November. Gore ended up with 113 of the region's electoral votes to Bush's 57, and 11 of the 14 senators from these states are Democrats.

To win more support from the fast-growing blocs of immigrant voters in large urban areas, Frey suggests that Bush and his administration will need to be sensitive to the problems of congested metropolises (declining public school systems, for example). Also important, he adds, will be the government's treatment of noncitizens who are not yet voters. Bush also fared poorly in the 25 states stretching from New England across the Midwest to the Great Plains that Frey categorizes as "slow growth/decliners." The voting population in these states is growing only modestly and is increasingly made up of citizens who are "older, middle-income and white," the University of Michigan demographer notes. Gore won the battle for electoral votes in this region 135 to 95. And Democrats now control 29 of the region's 50 seats in the Senate.

Although the electoral clout of this region will decline because of the loss of nine congressional seats resulting from the reapportionment based on the 2000 census, Bush can ill afford to disregard the concerns of so large an area. The solvency of the Social Security and Medicare systems and the problems of rural America take precedence in this slow-growth region, Frey notes.

An area that holds great political pro-mise for Bush is the "New West," a block of 10 states gaining population that Frey describes as "mostly white." This category encompasses the Rocky Mountain states, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. To a large degree, this region's growth is being fueled by an exodus from California. Frey notes that these are "nostalgic white suburbanites" seeking a more traditional lifestyle that is no longer available in the cosmopolitan melting pot.

The "New West" accounts for 15 of the 50 Republican seats in the Senate and provided Bush with 38 electoral votes to Gore's 18. Unlike older residents, the newcomers to this region tend to be more socially liberal on issues such as gun control, Frey observes.

By far the strongest region for both Bush and the Republican Party is the "New South"-defined by Frey as including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Bush swept all 81 of this region's electoral votes and Republicans hold 11 of its 16 Senate seats.

It is not a region, however, that Bush can take for granted. The area's population gains are being driven by the significant migration of blacks and white retirees from northern states. As a result, predicts Frey, the New South is becoming "a distinct but more liberal region than in the past."

Against this backdrop, and at a moment when the nation-and Congress-are evenly split along partisan lines, Bush faces an uncommon challenge in his quest to reduce rancor and forge common ground.

Dick Kirschten is a contributing editor for National Journal

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