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Plan A Falls Apart

For a long time, Bush’s poor job approval ratings on domestic issues were more than counter-balanced by his strong approval ratings on international issues. But that formula for political success is falling apart.

First, it was his poll ratings on handling foreign policy that headed south. Then his ratings on handling the situation in Iraq started tanking. And now the last bastion: his ratings on dealing with the war on terrorism. For the first time, a major public poll (NBC News/Wall Street Journal) has Bush’s approval rating on the war against terror below 60 percent–in this case, an underwhelming 56 percent, not far off his overall rating of 51 percent in the poll. Guess folks are losing the thread connecting the increasingly deadly and expensive Iraq occupation with the war against the folks who crashed planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon.

The same poll has his approval rating on foreign policy at just 48 percent. And the new CBS News poll makes it a matched set with a 48 percent approval rating on handling the situation in Iraq. Lo how the might have fallen. With these kind of approval ratings, a Democratic candidate in 2004 would be foolish not to engage Bush in a sharp debate about Americas’ role in the world and safeguarding our national security.

And a look at detailed recent poll results on Iraq shows just how much raw material there is for such a debate. Start with whether the war with Iraq has been worth the costs. CBS News asked this two ways. One-half their sample was asked simply whether “the result of the war with Iraq” was worth loss of American life and other costs. Just 40 percent said the war was worth these costs, compared to 51 percent who said it was not.

The other half of their sample was asked specifically whether “removing Saddam Hussein from power” was worth these costs. This elicits a more positive response, as one would expect, but hardly impressive: 50 percent say removing Hussein was worth costs, while 43 percent say it wasn’t. And, interestingly, the NBC News poll has a very similar question asking whether removing Hussein from power was worth the casualties suffered, but also specifically mentions “the financial cost of the war” (emphasis added). The response here is substantially more negative, with more people (46 percent) saying removing Hussein wasn’t worth the cost, than say it was (45 percent).

Sounds like Democrats don’t want to be shy mentioning how much this occupation is costing the American taxpayer.

The NBC News poll also finds that 60 percent believe the Bush administration underestimated the strength of the Iraqi armed opposition (up from 44 percent in July) and that 56 percent believe we will not find WMD in Iraq (up from 32 percent in May). As for whether we’re safer, 79 percent believe the Iraq war has either not changed or increased the threat of terrorism.

Turning to the question of whether the public feels that the administration, including Bush himself, has been straight with them about Iraq, it is impressive how negative the public is becoming. In the CBS poll, 55 percent say the Bush administration was either hiding important elements of what they knew about WMD in Iraq (40 percent) or mostly lying about what it knew (15 percent). And when the public was asked the same question about Bush himself, the results were almost identical: 53 percent say Bush was either hiding important elements of what he knew about WMD in Iraq (37 percent) or mostly lying about what he knew (16 percent)

Restoring honor and dignity to the White House, eh?

To make matters worse for Bush, these views are even more common among political independents: 60 percent say he was either hiding important elements of what he know or was lying. That’s pretty close to the 71 percent who hold these views among Democrats. And –continuing a pattern we have seen much of lately–both are far away from the mere 19 percent who hold these views among Republican partisans.

A just-released Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll allows for further exploration of the public’s current doubts and misgivings about the war in Iraq. For example, according to the PIPA poll, strong majorities now believe the Bush administration should have taken more time before the war to find out whether Iraq had WMD (61 percent to 36 percent) and should have taken more time to try to build international support for going to war (59 percent to 38 percent).

As for the Bush administration’s justifications for going to war when they did, the public overwhelmingly believes (87 percent) that the administration portrayed Iraq as an imminent threat to the US. But, by 58 percent to 40 percent, the public believes that the US did not have strong evidence the US was in imminent danger of being attacked by Iraqi WMD and, by 54 percent to 42 percent, the public believes the US was not, in fact, in danger of attack from Iraqi WMD. No wonder that 63 percent say that Bush, even if he had been told by US intelligence that there was no reliable evidence that Iraq was building WMD or that Iraq was providing support to Al-Quaeda, would have gone to war with Iraq anyway.

And no wonder that only a minority of Americans (42 percent) now see Bush as being “honest and frank”, while the majority (56 percent) profess to sometimes having doubts about what he says. These doubts about his veracity and about the rationale, timing and, of course, results of the war with Iraq have led to what few would have predicted when the US tanks were rolling into Baghdad in early: Bush’s identification with the Iraq war is now a net negative for his re-election prospects. While in September, an earlier PIPA poll showed more voters saying the way Bush has dealt with the Iraq situation would increase their likelihood of voting for him (35 percent to 30 percent who said it would decrease their likelihood), this poll shows the reverse: 42 percent say his handling of Iraq decreases the chance they will vote for him, compared to 35 percent who say it will increase that chance.

No doubt reflecting Bush’s emerging political liabilities on Iraq, the three polls discussed here have Bush with anemic overall approval ratings and doing poorly in a matchup with a generic Democrat. The PIPA poll has him losing handily in a generic matchup, 50 percent to 43 percent (the poll does not include an approval rating). The CBS News poll has him losing 43 percent to 41 percent, when the same poll had him winning by 46 percent to 34 percent just a month ago. The CBS News poll also has his approval rating at just 50 percent, down 4 points since late October and the lowest level measured by CBS since August, 2001, prior to 9-11. Even in the NBC news poll, which has Bush doing slightly better on these indicators, he only leads a generic matchup by 3 points (43 percent to 40 percent) and registers a weak 51 percent on his overall approval rating.

No wonder the Bush team was so happy to see that one quarter of good economic growth. Their plan A (invade Iraq in 2003; coast to victory on national security issue in 2004) is now completely out the window. Wise Democrats won’t let the voters forget just how deceitful and costly that plan A has been; even wiser Democrats will have clear ways of explaining to voters how we can get out of the mess that plan A has created. By the evidence of these polls, voters are ready to listen.

Comments

Good points all around, Ruy. Have you seen this story? I assume you subscribe to Salon.

http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2003/11/14/democrats/index.html

Now, I am a Dean supporter, and I understand your skepticism, but I think that he will be able to pivot for the general election and move from the donkey base rhetoric to a more nuanced argument that paints a picture of a President that just isn't up to the job. That would definitely be a winning strategy.

Bush's poll numbers down? No problem! On the theory that the best defense is a good offense, get ready for an ugly, ugly general election campaign. A president who would steal an election (o.k. he didn't really steal the election; his brother did), sell the nation's energy policy the way Clinton sold nights in the Lincoln Bedroom, squander our post-9/11 unity by playing heavy-handed partisanship at a time when the country was deferring to him as a wartime leader (for all you NASCAR guys, he was speeding during a yellow flag), then lead us into an ill-conceived war based on fudged intelligence, is not about to spend his $200 million war chest on a sunny, morning-in-America ad campaign. If you liked Willie Horton in 1988 or Max Cleland juxtaposed with Osama bin Laden in 2002, you're gonna love what Karl Rove has up his sleeve in 2004.

Change the tone in Washington? Ha!

Wonkery warning! Ruy: You say up front in this post that these polls show the crumbling of Bush's "last bastion: his ratings on dealing with the war on terrorism." I'm afraid that you (and a lot of Democratic political consultants and analysts) overemphasize issues at the expense of a politician's personal popularity.

Let's face it: Bush's greatest strength has never been his issues; it's been that people find him likeable, regular guy, straight-shooter, tough, etc. Indeed, I've read somewhere recently that one major weapon in the GOP re-elect war plan is to emphasize Bush's "character." THAT's his real "last bastion."

You cite some numbers showing his trustworthiness figures are falling. Great.

But his personal likeability numbers are still high, and I'd like to hear you address this issue. Don't you see this as a major obstacle for Dems? How do Dems counter this Bush strength?

I don't know whether Dean can credibly do that post-primary shift or not, but considering how on the ball Joe Trippi is, I've gotta believe that he's working hard on the problem.

Ruy,

Nice cogent analysis as usual. But doesn't Dan Perreten have a good point? People generally disagreed with Reagan on most issues, didn't they? But they re-elected him anyway because they liked him so much.

I'm not saying Bush is as popular as Reagan, but it does seem that his "straight-shooter," "regular-guy" act, particularly in the age of terrorism, still resonates with voters. Enough independents may still see him as a decisive leader, etc., to elect him.

Maybe Dean will be the next Clinton in terms of slick electability, and he'll be able to counteract that likeability factor, but I haven't seen it yet.

And I think we all make a mistake if we read today's setbacks on Iraq as translating into problems for Bush a year from now in the election. Just read the news headlines of the past few days. Think summer 2004. Bush and the neocons will be loving the UN and international cooperation by then.

I agree that W.'s likeability is his real last cache of re-election capital. However, I would say that this is crumbling given that the right-wing press is increasingly falling back on defensive spin (Josh Marshall's has aptly named it "up-is-downism") in order to prop him up. Bush is not even that amiable any more. Watch how he bristles like a spoiled rich boy and walls up at press scrutiny. He blathers his global utopian aspirations in a profound tone just to cloak himself in an air of greatness. Unfortunately, too many in the press let him get away with it.

I also agree that the GOP will unveil a scorched-earth campaign in 2004 like we've never seen. Thus, we must nominate someone who can endure a smear campaign to end all smear campaigns and wear it like a badge of honor. I believe that the facade of Bush amiability can be cracked if Rove's initial blitzkrieg doesn't break the Democrat. I don't see any glass jaws among the major Democratic contenders, so I like our chances. All of these guys are seasoned campaigners except for Clark and Edwards, but I lived in NC when new-comer Edwards ever-so-politely smacked down Sen. Fairclough's smear campaign. I'd like to see Clark take a little more heat just to help us size him up.

I think we overestimate Bush in some ways. He got lucky in 2000 riding a complacent electorate and a strong coordinated campaign among the right-wing pundits who vanquished their timid liberal counterparts. They've never really been tested since thanks to Osama bin Laden. Rove is no Lee Atwater or Kevin Phillips among GOP strategists of days gone by. Hell, he's not even Clifton White. He stands mighty puny on the shoulders of giants. I'll take the strategists on our side any day. Let's just hope we get a candidate who can execute and maybe we'll get a little luck coming our way.

I agree that W.'s likeability is his real last cache of re-election capital. However, I would say that this is crumbling given that the right-wing press is increasingly falling back on defensive spin (Josh Marshall's has aptly named it "up-is-downism") in order to prop him up. Bush is not even that amiable any more. Watch how he bristles like a spoiled rich boy and walls up at press scrutiny. He blathers his global utopian aspirations in a profound tone just to cloak himself in an air of greatness. Unfortunately, too many in the press let him get away with it.

I also agree that the GOP will unveil a scorched-earth campaign in 2004 like we've never seen. Thus, we must nominate someone who can endure a smear campaign to end all smear campaigns and wear it like a badge of honor. I believe that the facade of Bush amiability can be cracked if Rove's initial blitzkrieg doesn't break the Democrat. I don't see any glass jaws among the major Democratic contenders, so I like our chances. All of these guys are seasoned campaigners except for Clark and Edwards, but I lived in NC when new-comer Edwards ever-so-politely smacked down Sen. Fairclough's smear campaign. I'd like to see Clark take a little more heat just to help us size him up.

I think we overestimate Bush in some ways. He got lucky in 2000 riding a complacent electorate and a strong coordinated campaign among the right-wing pundits who vanquished their timid liberal counterparts. They've never really been tested since thanks to Osama bin Laden. Rove is no Lee Atwater or Kevin Phillips among GOP strategists of days gone by. Hell, he's not even Clifton White. He stands mighty puny on the shoulders of giants. I'll take the strategists on our side any day. Let's just hope we get a candidate who can execute and maybe we'll get a little luck coming our way.

Sorry about the duplicate postings below. The submit button was so nice I hit it twice.

I´ve just linked your blog, which I liked very much, in my own portuguese "MINISCENTE" (http://luiscarmelo.blogspot.com).
Abraço, Luís Carmelo.

I think the obvious way to counterattack the GOP strategy of whining that we're playing to rough is, of course, to call them lily-livered whiners who can't stand a fair fight.

If they pull the "attacking the president helps evildoers" (which they have done and will do) is to point out that as the more popular candidate, we ARE the inevitable president, and that by attacking the future president they are "helping the terrorists".

...wiser Democrats will have clear ways of explaining to voters how we can get out of the mess that plan A has created.

Honestly, I haven't seen anyone of either party present a plan that takes the political realities on the ground in Iraq into account. One of my greatest fears is that we will win this election next year, but not do anything decisive or helpful in Iraq, because our aims by then will be merely to cut our losses.

I believe that the only way to solve the problem in Iraq, after internationalizing the occupation, is to divide the place into three sovereign countries. The Turks will be pissed about Kurdistan, but if the Sunnis get to keep Baghdad and the region immediately surrounding it, not fearful of domination by what now is a Shi'a majority in Iraq, then they might be convinced to abandon their violent tactics. Of course, the Shi'as would have the south as their own, making their country a nice buffer zone between the Sunnis and Kuwait.

One thing I just considered about this, though, is that even if a Democrat subscribes to his theory, he can't really talk about it now without potentially undermining the sitting president in some fashion. Regardless of Republican whining about dissent equalling treason, we mustn't do things that really do substantially disrupt the president's ability to conduct our international relations.
So maybe we'll elect one of our several great candidates, and maybe he'll surprise me by understanding the dynamics on the ground in post-Saddam Iraq.

No glass jaws among the Democrats, but it's all a matter of perception. Each of the candidates has a vulnerability that the pit bulls in the GOP can exploit with voters across Red America. Dean (of whom I think very highly), looks like an awfully tough opponent until he's cast as the "anti-war" candidate. If voters were dumb enough to believe that Max Cleland was somehow soft on the war on terrorism, imagine how they'll react when Rove emulates Saxby Chambliss's ads and shows Dean morphing into McGovern. (Memo to Wesley Clark: If Dean wins the nomination, you gotta suck it up and run for VP. Your country needs you now more than ever.) Then again, if Iraq stays on its current trajectory, we can run ads that show GWB morphing into LBJ.