It is a pity about Michael Gerson. I want his articles to be better than they are. I want there to be a place in our political dialogue for an articulate conservative evangelical with a strong interest in Catholicism. But, he always manages to disappoint, usually by missing what is abundantly obvious to the rest of us.
This morning’s article bears the improbable title "The Most Polarizing President" over a photo of President Obama. Gerson points out that in President George W. Bush’s first few months, the difference between his approval rating among Republicans and his approval ratings among Democrats was 51 percentage points. But, Obama’s is 61 percent. Gerson points out that in earlier times, a majority of Democrats approved of Richard Nixon’s job performance and a majority of Republicans approved of Jimmy Carter’s in the first months of their presidency. Voila. Q.E.D. Obama must be polarizing, and uniquely so and Gerson goes on to chastise the President for failing to win the votes of any Republicans for his budget.
The thing that Gerson misses, of course, is that the President enjoys a sixty-six percent approval rating from all Americans while the Republican Party now claims the loyalty of only 24 percent of Americans. That number is "as low as it has ever gotten" according to numbers’ cruncher extraordinaire Nate Silver at www.fivethirtyeight.com. That number also, overlaps entirely, with those who self-identify as very conservative. So, the problem is not that the President has failed to attract moderate Republicans. The problem is that there are no more moderate Republicans to attract.
Take Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter. He is hardly a fire-breathing conservative. He hails from a swing state. But, his principal concern as he seeks re-election in 2010 is a primary challenge from a more conservative Republican. Last time he ran, in 2004, Specter narrowly beat conservative Congressman Pat Toomey in the GOP primary, 51-59 percent. In the general election, he beat Democrat Joe Hoeffel easily, by ten points. Do you think Specter can afford to be seen voting for the President’s budget?
The Republican Party has a problem. At a time when America is becoming more diverse racially, the Republican Party is becoming more white. Blacks were undoubtedly going to support Obama in record numbers the same way Greeks turned out for Mike Dukakis in 1988, but Obama also reversed the Democrats’ fortunes among Latinos, winning their vote by two-to-one. But, the real problem for the GOP is that their party is now so heavily concentrated in the South where conservative politics still sell even while the rest of the country has shifted. Gerson condemns Obama for being "conventionally liberal" but, again, what he misses is that the center has shifted. Supporting universal health insurance may have been liberal ten years ago. It is mainstream today.
The GOP has another problem too. Young people love the President. Last night, after winning the national championship and being named Final Four MVP, the University of Connecticut’s star center Tina Charles did not announce she was going to Disneyworld. "I just want to say one thing," she told the crowd of 18,478. "President Barack Obama, I’ll be seeing you soon." Can you think of any other politician about whom such a thing would be said at such a moment? I can’t.
Poor Michael Gerson. The wind at his back is an ill wind and it is bringing him and his party into dangerous territory. 24 percent and dwindling. A conservative movement that is out of ideas. Intra-party struggles against those who are not ideologically pure. He can blame Obama all he wants but the reason there is so little bipartisanship in Washington has to do with the internal dynamics of the Republican Party. And, he is smart enough to know it.