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It’s the Corruption and Cronyism, Stupid

by Ruy Teixeira

Iraq. The economy. Social Security. Katrina. The Bush administration has a lot to answer for as we move into 2006. But with the indictment of Lewis “Scooter” Libby on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, the issue of corruption and cronyism in Washington presents itself as a potentially decisive addition to that mix. When the public is already looking for change (see “Change Constituency Continues to Grow” from last week), intensified ethics concerns may well be the straw the breaks the camel’s back and convinces the public that the current administration, starting with its GOP supporters in Congress, simply has to go.

Some data supporting this view are provided by two polls conducted right after the Libby indictments. Here are the key findings.

1. The new Washington Post/ABC News poll measures Bush’s job approval as 39 percent, with 58 percent disapproval, easily his worst rating yet in this poll, which tends to run high relatively high on Bush’s approval ratings. The poll also finds more than twice as many strongly disapproving (45 percent) as strongly approving (22 percent) of Bush’s job performance. In addition, the poll finds 25 percent of Republican identifiers disapproving of Bush’s job performance, a 17 point jump since the beginning of this year. If this trend continues, the assumption that Bush can’t fall much below 40 percent approval will be called into question, since that assumption is based on the claim that Bush’s support among Republicans will not fall below the 80-85 percent level.

2. The same poll finds almost two-thirds of the public (64 percent) giving Bush a negative rating (“only fair” or “poor) for his handling of ethics in government. That figure includes nearly one-third of Republicans and a whopping 71 percent of independents. Moreover, almost half of the public (46 percent) says the overall level of ethics and honesty in the federal government has declined during Bush’s presidency, compared to just 15 percent who say it has improved.

3. On the Libby indictment itself, 69 percent call it a serious charge and only 26 percent term it a technical or minor charge. And 55 percent believe that the Libby indictment indicates “broader problems with ethical wrongdoing in the Bush administration”, rather than that it is an “isolated incident” (41 percent).

4. In the new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 56 percent now say the phrase “can manage the government effectively” does not apply to Bush, compared to 43 percent who think it does. That reverses the July result on the same question, where, by 53-45, the public thought that phrase did apply to Bush.

5. By 55-42, the public now pronounces Bush’s presidency so far to have been a failure. And they are not optimistic about the future: by 55-41, they expect the last three years of Bush’s presidency to also be a failure.

6. On the Libby indictment specifically, 76 percent believe Libby either did something illegal (45 percent) or unethical (31 percent). On the other hand, in contrast to the ABC News result, 55 percent describe the Libby charges as stemming from an isolated incident, rather than indicating “low ethical standards” for the Bush administration (38 percent). This difference could stem from the somewhat tougher language of this question (“low ethical standards” vs. “broader problems with ethical wrongdoing”) and the fact that the Gallup poll does not mention that the leaked name was of an undercover CIA employee, while the ABC News poll does specify this detail.

These data indicate that ethical problems are likely to aggravate an already dicey situation for the GOP as they head toward the 2006 elections. Just how difficult that situation was even before the indictments were handed down is clearly outlined in a recent Gallup report based on pre-indictments data. That report rightly notes that Democratic leads in the generic Congressional ballot, especially this far ahead of the election, should be treated with great caution. But other more consequential indicators do suggest a difficult time for the GOP in 2006:

Besides the generic ballot, there are some stronger indications that the Republican majority in Congress may be in trouble. Chiefly, Americans' overall approval rating of Congress is, according to Gallup's Oct. 13-16 poll, just 29%. That compares with 50% approval for Congress in October 2002 and 44% in October 1998. The last time congressional approval fell below 30% was in 1994 -- the year the previously entrenched Democratic majority was ousted by a Republican tidal wave.

Also, the percentage of registered voters who believe that most members of Congress deserve to be re-elected has fallen below 50% for the first time since 1994. Today, just 46% believe most members of Congress deserve another term, while 44% disagree. While not as low as the 38% found just before the 1994 elections, the 46% today is substantially lower than the 57%-58% recorded before the past two midterm elections....

The impact Bush will have on the congressional elections is unclear, but in principle, his low approval ratings cannot help the Republican Party. If his ratings continue to dip into the low 40s, as they have for the past two months, he could be a greater liability to Republican candidates than was Bill Clinton in 1994.

This finding is underscored by a separate question asking voters what impact a candidate's relationship with Bush will have on their vote for that candidate. By a 55% to 39% margin, a majority of voters say they would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who opposes Bush than for a candidate who supports him. Only 6% say it would make no difference.

This is notably more negative than what Gallup found in 1994 and 1998 in reaction to Clinton. In neither case did a majority of voters say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who opposed Clinton.

A follow-up question, asking voters how strongly they feel about a candidate's support for Bush, reveals an even more dramatic difference in Bush's potential impact on the election. Close to half of all voters today (47%) feel very strongly about voting for a candidate who opposes Bush. Even in 1994, when Clinton's approval rating was similar to Bush's current rating, a much lower percentage (36%) expressed this level of animosity toward Clinton.

Again, all these data were collected before the Libby indictments came down. It seems fair to say that 2006 is shaping up to be a very rough year for the GOP.