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`Mainstream' tougher to define than politicians think

WASHINGTON—The Senate's fight over federal judges last week, like the coming fight over one or more Supreme Court nominations, was waged in a stream. The mainstream, that is.

Liberal critics say President Bush's nominees for federal courts are so conservative that they're outside the nation's more moderate political mainstream. Conservative defenders say that nominees such as Janice Rogers Brown and William H. Pryor are in the center of American thinking.

The Senate approved both nominees, but the harsh rhetoric and intense sniping signaled that the week's events were just a warm-up for future clashes over coming Bush nominees, including perhaps to the Supreme Court should ailing Chief Justice William Rehnquist or another justice retire.

In this charged environment, both sides suggest that political geography and labeling are at least as important, and perhaps more so, than more-substantive analysis. Calling someone outside the mainstream, or extreme, is the bumper sticker or sound bite that replaces a more detailed and perhaps nuanced look at the record.

Who defines the mainstream? Is it decided issue by issue, with polls telling us what the majority wants? Is it decided by election results? By peers, with judges judged, for example, by how much they agree with court precedents, or by how much they agree with majority opinions?

Judging the mainstream is easy in Washington, where most players see their side as right and the other as extreme. Inside the Beltway, a judge or politician is for abortion or against it. For business or against it. For gay marriage or against it.

"To a greater extent than ever before, the political definition of what is in or outside the mainstream reflects the core constituencies of the two parties," said Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan Washington research group.

It's harder in the rest of the country, where most Americans are somewhere in between the fringes of left and right.

Take abortion, a litmus-test issue in many fights over judges. Secular liberals want no restrictions on a woman's right to have an abortion. Christian conservatives believe it's murder and should be banned.

Polls show the public's "mainstream" somewhere in the middle. A recent Gallup poll, for example, showed only 23 percent of Americans want abortion legal under any circumstances and only 22 percent want it illegal all the time. The majority, 53 percent, wants it legal, but with restrictions.

Or consider what Americans think about government controls on business, another contentious issue in the judicial wars. A 2003 survey by the Pew Research Center showed a divided country, with 53 percent saying government regulation does more harm than good and 39 percent saying it is beneficial.

How about gay marriage? Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said last week that Republicans were outside the mainstream in part because they supported anti-gay marriage amendments in 11 states where gay marriage was already illegal.

Yet a majority of Americans oppose gay marriage, numerous polls show. And majorities voted to approve anti-gay marriage constitutional amendments in every state where one was on the ballot.

Many Americans also jump from bank to bank depending on the issue.

As a recent debate in the U.S. House of Representatives illustrated, many self-described pro-life members who oppose abortion supported medical research using stem cells from human embryos.

"For the enormous majority of people, they're conservative in some respects and liberal in other respects," Kohut said. "So there is no one issue for them that would put someone out of the mainstream."

And no one thinks he or she is out of the mainstream.

"It's like when you ask people whether they're rich, middle class or poor. Even rich people say they're middle class," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. "Everyone likes to think they're not on the extremes of any judgment."

If difficult to define, "the mainstream" also can be hard to predict. It changes course over time.

On abortion, for example, the percentage of Americans who believe it should be banned has risen from 15 percent in 2000 to 22 percent today, according to Gallup.

Perhaps the ultimate example of the power and the transience of the label came in 1964, when conservative Republican Barry Goldwater ran for president.

Goldwater was lampooned as outside the mainstream. He embraced the label, boasting famously that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice."

He lost in a landslide.

Yet a generation later, a man who gained national fame backing Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, won back-to-back landslide elections, ushering in a more conservative era—and a new definition of the American mainstream.

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(The Gallup poll of 1,005 adults was conducted May 2-5 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The Pew poll of 2,528 adults was conducted July 14 - Aug. 5, 2003 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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