Jewish World Review March 15, 2004 / 22 Adar, 5764

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The reluctant culture warrior | A new Gallup Poll says George W. Bush is the most polarizing president in the history of its surveys on the subject. It's hard to believe that the good ol' Texas guy is more divisive than, say, Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, but apparently, he is.

Gallup says 91 percent of Republicans like the president but just 17 percent of the Democrats do. In a bad news situation for Mr. Bush, Gallup also sees independent voters shifting away from the chief executive.

What's in play here, I believe, is the increasing polarization of the country, not just the policies of President Bush. We have entered an age where character assassination in the political arena is handsomely rewarded by media chieftains, and standards of civility in the general debate have declined drastically. Political bomb throwers are everywhere: on the radio, on cable, on the pages of smear books. Everybody's a liar, everybody's a cad or cadette, and, unfortunately, some of us are eating this stuff up.

So President Bush shouldn't take the polarization thing personally; it's more about the culture than him. But there is danger here for the president, as it can be difficult to change strong perceptions that can emerge from sensational accusations, proved or not.

Therefore it is puzzling that the president does not want to do battle in the culture war, which might bring him more supporters. At this point, his "people" believe he can win reelection as a terror warrior and a tax cutter. I don't believe that will be enough.

Americans are an emotional people, and right now, the emotion is in social issues like job outsourcing, gay marriage and the eviction of God from the public arena. Senator Kerry is hitting the outsourcing thing all day long, so that leaves the president with the "decline of civilization" issues. But he doesn't like them. Neither did his father.

My observation is that George W. Bush is not a confrontational guy unless you disrespect him, his family or the country. Saddam made a huge mistake trying to pull a Soprano hit on Bush the elder in Kuwait. When riled up, the president is hard guy to rile down.

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But he doesn't rile easily. Do you really believe the president cares if Vinnie marries Eric? Mr. Bush may saber rattle against the lawlessness of issuing gay marriage licenses, but believe me, he couldn't care less what gays are doing, as long as they don't do it in Crawford.

As for the crass media culture, well, the president was asleep during the Janet Jackson exposure and will probably stay in the Land of Nod on this issue. Steroids are one thing, but mentioning Ludacris and his pals in a presidential speech simply will never happen.

One of the problems that Mr. Bush has (and Senator Kerry has it as well) is that he is not down with the folks and never has been. The concerns of parents vis-a-vis the culture are mostly theoretical to him. While campaigning for president the first time around, Mr. Bush could not name the leader of Pakistan. My money says he doesn't know who 50 Cent is either.

That kind of distance from the streets is a big deficit for the president, because he is not a snobby guy. He genuinely relates to people and must use that personality trait to his advantage against Kerry if he is to win. Mr. Bush has got to convince the traditional folks, who heavily outnumber the "progressives," that he understands their values and will fight for them.

But we have seen little of that from the president. We know he likes G-d, but besides the ACLU, who doesn't? We don't know if Mr. Bush will stand and fight against our cultural collapse or turn in early. We're all tired, Mr. President, but there's a big national brawl going on. Get in it, and you might win. Stay away, and you can turn out the lights.

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JWR contributor Bill O'Reilly is host of the Fox News show, "The O'Reilly Factor," and author of, most recently, "Who's Looking Out for You?" Comments by clicking here.

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