Monday, July 4

The Superbowl of Polarization

A polarizing showdown over O'Connor's seat may alienate a public that prefers the middle.

By Doyle McManus, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Like vast armies taking up positions on the eve of battle, interest groups on the right and left are readying for a fight over President Bush's nomination of a successor to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Both sides agree that the battle is likely to be fierce. The stakes are high: O'Connor has been one of the court's swing voters whose views determine how cases are decided.

The debate over her replacement will focus on some of the most divisive issues before the nation: abortion, gay marriage, religious symbols in public places. It is likely to dominate Washington's agenda — and the media's — for two months or more.

But in the middle of the storm, like civilians caught on a battlefield, much of the nation may wish that the whole thing would just go away.

"This will be the Super Bowl of polarization for ideological interest groups," said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "But for most of the country, it may just look like another partisan battle in Washington."

Abortion, gay marriage and religion may be hot-button issues, prized by interest groups and political consultants for their ability to mobilize people to vote and donate money. But most Americans consider them less pressing than the war in Iraq or the state of the economy, and recoil from the acrimony of the debate.

"The rhetoric is going to be terrible," predicted Patricia McDonald, a semiretired lawyer in Leawood, Kan. "Cable television is filled with talking heads who get paid to talk like that, to take the most extreme viewpoints…. But in the end, we don't get to vote about this. Life will go on.

"I don't think this is going to be nearly as divisive as the presidential campaign," she added. "Even then, we had a lot of disagreement, but I don't think I met more than two people who really got upset about it."

An increasing number of political scientists agree with her. Americans, they argue, aren't as polarized as they look.

On election day, the United States may divide into a 50-50 nation — or, as happened last November in the choice between Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry, 51-48. But even on the most hotly debated issues, most Americans prefer a position somewhere in the middle.

Most don't want to outlaw all abortions, polls show, but they'd like to see a few more restrictions. Most don't approve of same-sex marriage, but they're willing to consider other legal rights for gays.

"There's a difference between division and polarization," said Morris P. Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "We are a closely divided nation — but we aren't all that deeply divided. In a battle like this one, you're listening to 10% on each side scream at each other."

The problem, Fiorina and others say, is that the American political process has become polarized — increasingly forcing voters to choose between one extreme and the other, leaving out the middle.

The battle over Bush's impending Supreme Court nomination will combine several of the factors that have made politics so divisive.

It is likely to focus on controversial social, cultural and religious issues. It will culminate in a yes-or-no question — should the nominee be confirmed, or not? — without much room for middle ground. And the debate will be spearheaded by interest groups on both extremes — groups that sometimes appear to have a vested interest in polarization because it increases their influence.

"You've got large amounts of what we used to call issue advocacy money — money that exists and waits to be deployed in the service of polarization," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "That's a new factor."

William A. Galston, who was an aide to former President Clinton and now teaches at the University of Maryland, said: "It's an open question whether they are raising the money to fight the battles or fight the battles to raise the money. This is an infernal machine that has taken on a life of its own."