WASHINGTON—Just 10 weeks before the midterm elections, the White House has irked its base again.
This time it's social conservatives, who are disappointed that President Bush endorsed a decision to allow over-the-counter sales of the Plan B morning-after contraceptive pill to adults. Making matters much worse, the White House all but blew off those conservatives who called to ask about the decision.
It's part of a take-or-leave-it attitude that the White House has applied to friends and opponents alike ever since Bush took office. What's surprising is that he and his staff maintain the stance even with his popularity near five-year lows, his legislative agenda dead and prospects good that his party will lose control of the House of Representatives this fall.
That approach drove Democrats away first, though they would've abandoned him eventually anyway. But it probably also cost the support of some independents. Now it threatens to dampen Election Day turnout from conservatives depressed over such issues as spending or immigration or downright fed up with such decisions as Bush's ill-fated nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court or this latest by the Food and Drug Administration.
Tom McClusky, the vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council, said he wanted to give the president the benefit of the doubt when the FDA announced its expected ruling.
McClusky said he assumed that Bush went along with the decision only as a deal to get two Democratic senators—Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Patty Murray of Washington state—to drop their objections and clear the way for the Senate to confirm the president's choice to head the FDA, Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach.
So McClusky and other social conservatives were stunned, they said, when they heard Bush say, " I support Andy's decision."
At Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based group, bioethics analyst Carrie Gordon Earll said the president's comment "shocked and surprised" her.
At the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, McClusky dialed the White House, looking for some clarification. He expected to hear, for example, that Bush had to go along to get Eschenbach's nomination through.
What he got was the president's words read to him, nothing else.
"The people we got a hold of were not helpful at all. I called to get a clarification . . . all they sent me was a transcript," he said.
"I asked a number of people in the White House for clarification, and all of them simply sent me the president's remarks. And I haven't heard anything since."
Now the Family Research Council and other allies among social conservatives and in Congress are weighing a lawsuit to challenge the FDA's decision. News of such a confrontation just before this fall's elections could aggravate the White House's hopes of energizing conservatives to vote.
"This is not an issue that grabs people around the dinner table. It doesn't grab people like the war or taxes, or even marriage or the abortion decision in South Dakota," McClusky said.
"But people are going to wonder why all these pro-life, pro-family groups are suing this administration."
Sitting at their kitchen tables in districts with close House races or states with close Senate races, some social conservatives could react with anger and not vote at all. Or they might remain sufficiently afraid of the Democrats to vote but too apathetic to help get anyone else to vote.
Close contests—and Congress—could hang in the balance.
That's an odd thing about this White House. Despite all the complaints from the secular left that Bush and his presidency are captive to the religious right, those on the religious right find him at best a situational ally. Bush ends up losing support at both ends—and perhaps his chances of building an enduring Republican majority.
(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)