Republicans won the last two elections on the terrorism issue. Will it work a third time?
Three polls out last week give them some rea-son to feel encouraged. President Bush got a 42 percent job-approval rating in the CNN poll, 42 percent in the USA Today/Gallup poll, and 36 percent in the New York Times/CBS News poll. That's an average of 40 percent approval.
Bush's numbers have been rising slowly for the past three months. In April and May, his job ratings reached a low, averaging 34 percent in nonpartisan public polls. In June and July, the average was 38 percent.
Why the improvement? The White House has been using the terrorism issue to rally the Republican base, just as it did in 2002 and 2004. At a Republican fundraiser on August 23, White House political strategist Karl Rove said, "If leading Democrats had their way, our nation would be weaker and the enemies of our nation would be stronger. And that is a stark fact of modern life." And Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman offered this characterization of Democrats in an August 9 speech: "A party that once stood for strength now stands for retreat and defeat, even as our nation faces an ideological enemy as dangerous as any we faced in the 20th century."
Bush's biggest gains have been on the terrorism issue, particularly since the arrest of suspected terrorist plotters in London last month. In fact, terrorism is the only issue on which the president can claim majority support right now. The New York Times/CBS poll and the USA Today/Gallup poll peg Bush's approval rating on terrorism at 55 percent, up 10 points since April. On all other issues—Iraq, the economy, energy, the Middle East—his ratings are below 40 in both polls. Bush has made his biggest gains among Republicans, conservatives, rural Americans, and men, according to the CNN poll. In other words, within his base.
Will the terrorism issue save the Republican majorities in Congress? Late-August polls all show Democrats in the lead, by an average of 9 points, when registered voters nationwide are asked how they will vote for Congress. But some polls show the race tightening. The USA Today/
Gallup poll has the Democratic lead at just 2 points (47 percent to 45 percent). Last week's Hotline poll surveyed likely voters. In that group, the race was a dead heat: 40 percent said they would vote Democratic and 40 percent said Republican. The GOP may be having a problem with middle-of-the-road voters, but it still knows how to rally its base.
Democrats want to frame the debate around the war in Iraq rather than the war on terrorism. Voters are clearly fed up with Iraq. In the CNN poll, 61 percent of Americans now say they oppose the war. Only 35 percent support it, a new low.
Bush is trying to rebuild support for his Iraq policy by sticking to the argument that it's part of the war on terrorism. "I repeat what our leading general said in the region," the president said at his August 21 news conference. "He said that if we withdraw before the job is done, the enemy will follow us here. I strongly agree with that."
But do the American people agree with it? Not any more. In the CNN poll, 52 percent said they view the war in Iraq as a distraction from the war on terrorism, compared with 44 percent who said they think that Iraq is an essential part of the war on terror. The New York Times/CBS News poll found the same thing: For the first time since the U.S. invasion in 2003, a majority of Americans (51 percent) do not see the war in Iraq as part of the war on terror. That gives Democrats an opening.
Just after the 2002 midterm elections, President Clinton warned fellow Democrats: "When people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right." Democrats have to convince voters not only that they are right but also that they are strong in confronting terrorism.