Nationalize the midterm election, and Democrats win. That's the conventional wisdom. President Bush is attempting to defy it—and is risking a backlash against his party.
Evidence bolstering the conventional wisdom is not hard to find. All the major polls show Democrats in the lead when voters nationwide are asked their preference for Congress (by 53 percent to 43 percent among likely voters in a CNN poll conducted by Opinion Research, for example). That question measures only the national forces surrounding this campaign. Republicans are hoping to neutralize those forces by running highly personalized negative campaigns against their Democratic opponents. "When you run in an adverse political environment, you try to localize and personalize the race as much as you can," Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told The Washington Post.
On issue after issue, Democrats have the advantage. Which party do Americans think would do a better job on the minimum wage? Democrats, by a whopping 33 points in the CNN poll (62 percent to 29 percent). Gasoline prices? Democrats, again by 33 points. Health care? Democrats. Stem-cell research? Democrats. The economy? Democrats. Even same-sex marriage and immigration—Democrats, by 10 and 7 points, respectively.
The message: The more the 2006 campaign focuses on national issues, the better Democrats are likely to do, especially if the issue is the war in Iraq. American opposition to the war has swelled to nearly 60 percent. So last week, congressional Democrats made their big move, demanding a vote of no confidence in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
But then President Bush stepped in with a move to nationalize the election on his terms. By shifting top Qaeda detainees to Guantanamo and demanding that Congress give him the legal powers to try them, the president instantly refocused the agenda on terrorism, the issue that Republicans rode to victory in 2002 and 2004. Other issues on the congressional agenda will be swept aside, in part because Congress does not want to be held responsible for delaying the trials.
Moreover, three influential Republican senators—Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—have offered an alternative proposal for the military trial procedures. We could see congressional Republicans divided over giving Bush the powers he wants.
Bush is daring Democrats to oppose giving him those powers. This time, however, Democrats are refusing to be put on the defensive. "Not only will we not be 'Swift Boated' on the issue of national security," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, "we're going to take the fight to the Republicans. The war in Iraq has weakened our military, weakened our readiness."
Only one-quarter of Americans polled by CNN think that the United States and its allies are winning the war in Iraq; 12 percent think that the insurgents are winning. The prevailing view? Neither side is winning (62 percent).
What has to be troubling to the White House is that Americans no longer think that the war on terrorism is going particularly well, either. By 53 percent to 47 percent, the public says it is not satisfied with how that fight is being handled. That is the lowest level of satisfaction registered since 9/11, and it marks the first time that a majority of Americans have expressed dissatisfaction with the war on terrorism. Americans who oppose the war in Iraq are deeply dissatisfied (by 75 percent) with the way things are going in the war on terrorism. That's true even among Republicans (64 percent dissatisfied).
Instead of the war on terrorism's boosting public support for the war in Iraq, the opposite may be happening. Disillusionment with the war in Iraq may be creating dissatisfaction with the war on terrorism.
The backlash is already visible among female voters. Women are more likely than men to accept Bush's argument that Iraq is part of the war on terrorism (51 percent of women, 39 percent of men). But that's not helping Bush with women, because they are more critical of the war in Iraq. The result? Women express greater dissatisfaction with the war on terrorism than men do.
By linking Iraq with the war on terrorism, Bush may not be building support for his Iraq policy. He may instead be spreading doubts about how he's handling the war on terrorism.