Political Pulse December 2005

Bush's Upward Blip

If U.S. troops are being withdrawn from Iraq by next fall, the issue could lose its political edge.
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A poll with good news for President Bush? Could it be? Well, yes, sort of. This month's CBS News/New York Times poll shows Bush's job-approval rating going up, from 35 percent at the end of October to 40 percent in early December. That's worth noting even if it's not exactly a dramatic reversal.

Bush's job-approval ratings shot up into the stratosphere after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His ratings have been going downhill fairly steadily ever since.

Bush's current improvement looks like a blip at the end of a long slide. What's behind it? The economy, stupid. Americans are beginning to feel better about the economy because gasoline prices are going down a bit and the stock market is nudging upward. Over the past month, the number of Americans saying that the nation's economy is in good shape rose from 47 percent to 55 percent in the CBS/Times poll.

Bush, meanwhile, has also been talking up his "Plan for Victory" in Iraq. He's having less success with the public on that front. Asked whether Bush has a clear plan for victory in Iraq, more than two-thirds of the public says no. A majority of Bush's critics cite Iraq as the main reason for their disapproval.

Bush won't be on the ballot next year. The battle for Congress will be Republicans versus Democrats. Right now, the scorecard in that race doesn't look very good for the GOP. Only 33 percent of those Americans surveyed say they would vote for the Republican House candidate in their district, while 42 percent say they'd vote for the Democrat. It's hard to see how Republicans could sustain their majority with 33 percent support.

Despite the improving economic outlook, Democrats still get higher marks when it comes to handling the economy (in the CBS/Times poll, 45 percent prefer the Democrats on the economy and 37 percent prefer the Republicans). What about Iraq? The Democrats' advantage is surprisingly small: 40 percent say Democrats would handle Iraq better; 35 percent say Republicans.

"You have a lot of disarray and disagreement within the Democratic Party," says White House press secretary Scott McClellan. That's true. On one end are Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, both of whom want to withdraw U.S. troops within the next six months. On the other is Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who recently penned an op-ed column titled "Our Troops Must Stay."

Bush quoted Lieberman's article approvingly in his recent speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. Lieberman wrote, " 'What a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will and, in the famous phrase, to seize defeat from the jaws of the coming victory,' " Bush said, adding, "Senator Lieberman is right."

But the American public doesn't see victory coming. And 58 percent of those surveyed in the CBS/Times poll said they would like to see a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But 61 percent said they agree with Bush's view that "withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq now would be a recipe for disaster."

A lot of comparisons have been made between the wars in Iraq and Vietnam, but there is an important difference. It was difficult to make the case that the enemy in Vietnam constituted a threat to the United States. But since 9/11, Americans have been keenly aware of the threat posed by Islamic radicals. And they worry about any policy that would allow Iraq to become a base for those radicals, the way Afghanistan once was. The public feels like this, despite the widespread view that the war in Iraq was unnecessary—48 percent said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq—and despite widespread doubts that war in Iraq has made the United States safer from terrorism.

While Iraq is a serious problem for Republicans, it's also a risky issue for Democrats. The more that Democratic politicians talk about it, the more problems they seem to create for themselves.

When Dwight Eisenhower ran for president in 1952, his plan for the Korean War amounted to one sentence: "I will go to Korea." In 1968, Richard Nixon claimed to have a "secret plan" for ending the war in Vietnam. They both won election. On the other hand, George McGovern's plan to bring the troops home from Vietnam did not sell at all in 1972, even though by then most Americans were deeply disillusioned with that war.

If U.S. troops are being withdrawn from Iraq by next fall, the issue could lose its political edge. But another issue could be an even bigger problem for Republicans: Medicare, specifically the new prescription drug plan. By nearly 3-to-1, seniors don't think the new plan will significantly reduce their drug bills. Medicare is the issue on which Democrats enjoy their biggest advantage over Republicans (54 percent to 24 percent).

One finding in the CBS/Times poll is particularly surprising. Republicans have been suffering from a wave of scandals involving Jack Abramoff, Randy (Duke) Cunningham, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Lewis Libby, and Michael Scanlon. But when the poll asked Americans which party has higher ethical standards, 34 percent said the Republicans and 31 percent said the Democrats. That's not good news for Democrats who want to run against what Pelosi calls a Republican "culture of corruption." Apparently, when Americans hear reports of wrongdoing in Washington, their first thought isn't "Republicans" or "Democrats." It's "politicians."

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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