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Is This the End of Bushism?

by Ruy Teixeira

Of course, Bushism could be defined in a number of different ways, but on one key definition it clearly is coming to an end. If we define Bushism as the political project of building a majority coalition, despite a commitment to unpopular policies, based on a superior cultural, national security, and leadership image among voters, that project is now failing. This is the unambiguous message of the latest round of public polls.

Here is what is happening to the main underpinnings of Bushism.

Bush himself. In the not-so-recent past, it was argued that Bush himself would never become really unpopular because of his image as a strong leader and the unshakable support of his base. That argument can now be discarded.

Recent public polls all have Bush’s approval rating below 40 percent and we now have our first public poll (CBS News) where approval has fallen to the 35 percent level and our first poll (Washington Post/ABC News) where disapproval has reached the 60 percent level, with strong disapproval nearly reaching 50 percent. These polls tend to show Bush’s approval rating among GOP identifiers below 80 percent—a level that many thought he would never fall below. And his job approval among independents now hovers around 30 percent. According to the new Pew Research Center poll, his job approval among this group has dropped an amazing eighteen points since the beginning of this year.

In the CBS News poll, Bush’s approval rating among moderates is also just 30 percent. And even conservatives only give him a 54 percent rating. The Pew Research Center report also notes that moderates and liberals among Republicans (37 percent of GOP identifiers) have declined dramatically in their support for Bush since July, reaching levels as low as 60 percent approval.

The full dimensions of this collapse can be better appreciated through some historical comparisons. At this point in Bill Clinton’s second term, he had an approval rating of 57 percent. At the analogous point in Reagan’s second term, he had a 65 percent rating. And at the same point in Eisenhower’s second term, he had a 58 percent rating. Of recent two term presidents, only Nixon had a lower rating at this point (27 percent). And, as Pew data from its recent poll show, the only thing keeping Bush from reaching truly Nixonian levels is that, despite declining Republican support, his current level (77 percent) is still substantially higher than Nixon enjoyed at the analogous point in his second term (56 percent). But his ratings among Democrats and independents are now essentially identical with those Nixon was receiving in November, 1973.

Leadership. Bush, the strong leader. This image has been absolutely central to Bushism as the administration ignored, over and over again, the views of the majority of the American public. People may not have agreed with Bush’s policies, but their high respect for him as a leader led many to overlook that fact.

No more. He can’t even crack 50 percent now in assessments of his leadership qualities. For example, in the Washington Post/ABC News poll, only 47 percent say he can be characterized as a strong leader. Similarly, in the CBS News poll, a mere 49 percent are willing to say Bush has “strong qualities of leadership.” And in a mid-October Gallup poll, just 49 percent agree that Bush has “the personality and leadership qualities a president should have.” All these numbers represent big declines since 2004.

And without confidence in Bush’s leadership qualities, what is the public likely to focus on now when they think of Bush? Perhaps that they don’t believe he shares their values (a 58 percent to 40 percent judgement in the Washington Post/ABC News poll). Or that he doesn’t understand the problems of people like them (a 66 percent to 34 percent judgment in the same poll). Or the poor job they feel he’s doing in virtually every policy area. Bushism can’t survive in such an environment.

Honesty. Bush’s image as an honest, straightforward guy has also been central to Bushism. Again, people may not have agreed with him, but they thought he’d level with them, which they respected.

That’s now gone by the board. In the Washington Post/ABC News poll, a strong 58 percent to 40 percent majority says Bush cannot be described as “honest and trustworthy.” Just 32 percent of the public give Bush’s handling of ethics in government a positive rating and, by 43 percent to 17 percent, they say the overall level of ethics in government has fallen, rather than risen, while Bush has been president. And, by 55 percent to 44 percent, the public now believes that the Bush administration intentionally misled the public in making its case for war with Iraq, rather than telling the public what it believed to be true at the time. That exactly reverses the result from the same question from March of this year.

In the Pew poll, the public, by twenty points (56 percent to 36 percent), says that Bush has not lived up to his promise to restore integrity to the White House. That includes a 63 percent to 29 percent negative judgment among independents, a 58 percent to 36 percent judgment among white Catholics, and even a 49 percent to 44 percent judgment among white Protestants. And, for the first time, a plurality of the public (43 percent to 41 percent) is willing to say that the United States and Britain outright lied when they claimed Iraq had WMD.

The war on terror. Speaking of Iraq, Iraq was supposed to the central front of the war on terror. But the public has never been convinced and negative views on the Iraq war continue to deepen. In the Washington Post/ABC News poll, the number saying the war was not worth fighting, given its costs and benefits, has now reached 60 percent for the first time. And nearly three-quarters (73 percent) say there have been an unacceptable number of U.S. military casualties in the Iraq conflict.

And, perhaps fatally for Bushism, the public can no longer divorce its distaste for the Iraq adventure from its feelings about the overall war on terror. Once Bush could count on continued public support for his handling of the war on terror as the one thing that could buoy his administration when everything else was failing. No longer.

In the CBS poll, his rating on handling the campaign against terrorism is now only 47 percent, with 46 percent disapproving. And in the Washington Post/ABC News poll, it is actually net negative for the first time (48 percent approve/51 percent disapprove).

Reflecting these sentiments, the same poll shows the Republicans losing to the Democrats (37 percent to 48 percent) as the party best able to Iraq situation and having no advantage at all over the Democrats (42 percent to 42 percent) on handling the campaign against terrorism, the first time this has happened. Right after the 2002 elections, the GOP led the Democrats by a whopping thirty-six points on this issue.

So, how can Bushism continue if Bush himself has become genuinely unpopular, he doesn’t have special status anymore as a leader or man of integrity and assessments of his stewardship of the war on terror, his greatest strength, are shifting into negative territory? The answer is simple: it can’t. Without that strong, positive image in the eyes of voters, the fundamental unpopularity of the policies Bushism is committed to will drag it down—and is dragging it down today.

But if Bushism is coming to an end, what will replace it? That’s a story for next week—so stay tuned!