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Dealing with Iraq: What Recent Polls Suggest About Strategy for the Dems

By Andrew Levison

An extremely important new Gallup poll on Iraq (analyzed in a recent post by Ruy Teixeira) dramatically illustrates both the key problem and also the tremendous opportunity that now confronts the Democratic Party.

The problem Dems face on Iraq is that the public is divided into three roughly equal groups - one solidly anti-war, one solidly pro-war and a pivotal middle group with more nuanced and less easily pigeonholed views of the conflict. According to the Gallup poll, 36% of Americans believe that the war was a mistake and that we should set a timetable for withdrawal while 30% believe that we were right to send troops in the first place and that we must now keep them there as long as necessary.

These two groups - neither close to a majority - include many of the committed base supporters of the two political parties. The critical swing group of 28%, however, is comprised of people who believe either (1) that the initial decision to send troops was correct, but we should now set a timetable for withdrawal or (2) that the initial decision to send troops was a mistake but we are now nonetheless obligated to keep troops in the country until some kind of stability is achieved.

This poses an extremely difficult opinion climate for the Dems. They face a hard uphill struggle to formulate a clear, coherent message that can appeal to these distinctly ambiguous sentiments among the swing voters while at the same time not alienating those who are firmly opposed to the war. Attempts to rhetorically bridge the gap by combining different elements of these distinct positions - or by switching between them -- inevitably ends up appearing vague, confused and vacillating. What the Democrats need is one clear core message that firmly expresses most Democrats' basic disagreement with the Bush Administration's approach to Iraq but which is presented in a form and language that seems reasonable and convincing to the ambivalent middle group.

For an answer, the polls suggest that the Democrats should take page from the Republican's political playbook from 2004 and challenge Bush on the basic and fundamental issue of leadership. In the last election, Republicans did not debate John Kerry's specific criticisms of the Administration's policy in Iraq; instead they challenged his ability as a leader, caricaturing his behavior with pejorative adjectives like "flip-flopping" and "waffling".

Democrats should take a parallel approach with Bush - not out of spite, but for two more substantive reasons. First, because the key current problems America faces in Iraq stem directly from Bush's profound failures of leadership and second, because the public opinion polls clearly indicate that in recent weeks there has been nothing less then a massive collapse in public confidence in George W. Bush as a wartime national leader.

Recent surveys have consistently and repeatedly shown that solid majorities - ranging from 51% to 58% and 59% now feel that the war was "not worth it" or that we "should have stayed out" and similarly firm majorities of 55%-59% express direct disappointment and disapproval of how Bush himself has handled the conflict. In the last month majorities have agreed that America has become "bogged down" in Iraq, that the war was "a mistake", that it "has not increased U.S. security" and that Bush and his administration have "no clear plan" for ending it.

These results have been reconfirmed by a number of distinct surveys and survey questions. They indicate a genuinely stunning loss of confidence in George W. Bush as a leader. Even Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon's support during the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War declined relatively gradually in comparison with the sudden meltdown that has occurred in Bush's popular backing.

It is this rapid decline that explains the abrupt change in political strategy the Administration unveiled in Bush's June 29th speech. In it Bush energetically attempted to redefine the terms of the debate away from the failures of his leadership and over to the arguments against withdrawal from Iraq (where, as we have seen, public opinion is more ambiguous and evenly divided). At the same time, Karl Rove's semi-official addendum to the text of Bush's speech also attempted to shift the national argument - this time to lurid accusations that the Democrats were spineless cowards and cringing advocates of appeasement.

What both these tactical maneuvers reflect is Bush's strategists' frantic desire to change the subject and distract attention away from the discussion of Bush's personal failures as a leader. The Administration is desperately anxious to avoid having the debate conducted on this latter terrain.

But, in focusing attention on Bush's personal flaws and weaknesses, Dems must take care to formulate their criticisms with care because the strong majority of Americans who are deeply disillusioned with Bush's leadership are divided into two quite distinct groups or categories.

One group, which includes most of the core Democratic "base" voters, essentially perceives Bush as a calculating and cynical liar who deliberately manipulated America into a war that was not really vital to the struggle against terrorism. In a June 23-26 ABC/Washington Post poll, some 50% of the respondents agreed that Bush had "intentionally mislead the American people" in making his case for war. This represented a 9% increase from only 3 months before. A June 27-29th Zogby poll then also found that many of these people took this perception very seriously, a substantial 42% of Americans saying that they would favor the initiation of impeachment proceedings if it were proven that Bush had deliberately mislead the country.

The other group -- one which includes most of the "newly disillusioned" voters -- does not share this perception of Bush as a cynical liar. It does, however, indeed increasingly view him as a basically failed leader. The people in this category generally accept the mental framework expressed in Bush's speech - a vision of the "war on terror" as a kind of modern Pearl Harbor i.e. "A devious and relentless enemy launched a sneak attack on us and now we have to send our troops to far-off places to stop them before they attack us once again". But, at the same time, they feel very strongly that things are basically not going well.

If one were to interview a person from this group they would tend to say something like the following.

I think Bush honestly tried to do what he thought was best, and I also absolutely do believe that we have the right to go anywhere on earth and do anything we have to to stop another attack by terrorists on American soil.
But it's pretty darn clear that things have not gone the way President Bush and the people around him planned. We are basically stuck over there. They are still killing our boys and blowing things up and it looks like we don't have enough soldiers or even all the right kind of equipment to do the job.
Honestly, I'm worried. Sally's son Jim is over there and the way they just keep extending the tours, there's no telling how long it will be before he gets back. I don't know what the right answer is, but I know things aren't just going right and it really bothers me that nobody in charge wants to admit it.

At first glance it is difficult to see how the Democrats can simultaneously appeal to voters like the woman above and at the same time to people who view Bush as a cynical liar. But, in fact, both groups share one fundamental and profoundly important point of agreement. Democrats can speak to it as follows:

Many dedicated and patriotic Americans -- both Republicans and Democrats, in the Administration, The Pentagon, the State Dept and CIA -- men like General Shinseki, Colin Powell, Richard Clarke and many others -- accurately predicted many of the key problems we are now facing in Iraq. Yet all of them were dismissed or marginalized by Bush and his advisors. It is now clear that these individuals' warnings were entirely justified but Bush is just too stubborn, too arrogant and too proud to admit when he is wrong. So he and his advisors continue to ignore anyone who doesn't agree with everything they say.
This is a profound and fundamental flaw in Bush's character. It means that he is incapable of admitting his mistakes and making the changes that have to be made in order to make things better. Because of this, America needs to bring in a new set of leaders who are willing to start fresh and listen fairly and openly to all points of view. There is no other way we are going to get out of the mess in which Bush's stubbornness and refusal to listen to anyone who disagrees with him have placed us.

This is a simple, common sense statement of a case for a change of leadership that both democratic base voters and disillusioned Bush voters can easily accept and which the opinion data clearly indicate a solid majority of American voters can support. It is a view that can be accepted by Americans with a wide range of opinions regarding whether America should begin to withdraw troops from Iraq or continue to "stay the course".

It is because Bush's advisors know that he is, in fact, extremely vulnerable to attacks along these lines that they make such strenuous efforts to shift the discussion to almost any other topic. Democrats, in response, should make every effort to keep the focus relentlessly on Bush's profound character flaws and his consequent failures as a leader.

Dems should make the terms "stubborn", "arrogant" and "too proud to admit when he's wrong" as familiar to voters in 2006 as the terms "flip-flopping" and "waffling" were to voters in 2004. These phrases dramatically highlight the fundamental weaknesses in Bush's character and are the keys to his profound and increasingly visible inadequacy as a national leader in the struggle against terrorism.