Tipping the Balance

"I think Mr. Rumsfeld should resign," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declared last week. Does the American public agree? The answer, according to a Gallup Poll taken last weekend, is no. By more than 2-to-1 (64 percent to 31 percent), the public says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should not resign. Do people want President Bush to fire Rumsfeld? Again, no, by more than 2-to-1 (62 percent to 29 percent).

It's not that Americans don't take seriously the reports of U.S. soldiers' mistreating Iraqi prisoners. Over 70 percent say the abuses constituted serious criminal offenses, not harmless pranks, as some radio commentators have suggested. More than 70 percent say there are no circumstances that could ever justify such acts of humiliation and abuse. A majority of Americans say the reports of mistreatment bother them "a great deal."

The big question is this: Was the mistreatment of prisoners a violation of U.S. policy, or was it U.S. policy? "Who directed these people, or were they directed?" asked Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. "Was there a policy from the CIA or any other intelligence effort?"

The military denies that it has a policy of mistreatment and says it is investigating and punishing the wrongdoers. "We don't torture people," Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week. Bush insists that the abuses were a violation of U.S. military policy: "What took place in that Iraqi prison was the wrongdoing of a few."

But at least two major investigations suggest that many of the abuses were policy. New Yorker magazine reporter Seymour Hersh, who reported the details of an Army investigation, argues, "It's impossible to believe that these six or seven young children from rural America understood the implications of this kind of treatment. Somebody told them what to do. Somebody enabled then to feel good enough about it, they could take photographs." And make videotapes, as it turns out.

Hersh adds, "The Army can't get out of it simply by saying it's just a few bad apples." Can it?

Most Americans think that the perpetrators were acting on their own, not following orders. More than 60 percent think the abuses were isolated instances. And by an overwhelming margin (79 percent to 14 percent), the public sees the abuses as a violation of military policy. That is one of the rare questions on which Democrats and Republicans agree: 84 percent of both Democrats and Republicans see the mistreatment as a violation of policy.

As a result, more than 80 percent of Americans think "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of blame should be placed on the soldiers who perpetrated the abuses and the officers supervising them. Just 48 percent blame Rumsfeld, and 42 percent blame Bush. For these depraved acts to have been a matter of policy is unthinkable to most Americans. If the investigations produce evidence that mistreatment was recommended or allowed, the public's reaction could be explosive.

The reports of abuse are changing the public's view of the war in Iraq. A week ago, just before the photos came out, the public was split over whether going to war in Iraq was worthwhile (50 percent said yes; 47 percent said no). Now, most Americans say it was not worth going to war (54 percent to 44 percent).

Responses to that question are intensely partisan. By 76 percent to 22 percent, Republicans think the war is worth the cost. By the same split, 76 percent to 22 percent, Democrats think it isn't. What tips the balance is that independents have now turned against the war. By 60 percent to 37 percent, unaligned Americans say it wasn't worth going to war.

The scandal is taking a toll on Bush's standing. Three weeks ago, just after the Iraqi insurgency began, the public was fairly evenly divided over how Bush was handling the situation in Iraq. Now 58 percent disapprove. That's the worst rating on Iraq that Bush has ever gotten.

In the past, he has held the advantage over Democratic challenger John Kerry on Iraq. Now, the public is pretty closely split over whether Bush or Kerry would do a better job handling Iraq (48 percent prefer Bush; 45 percent prefer Kerry).

Bush's overall job rating is at a new low—46 percent approval. For the first time, a majority of Americans (51 percent) say they disapprove of the way he is handling his job.

"Oh, boy," say Democrats. "We've got him."

Maybe not, though.

Right now, the presidential race stands at 48 percent for Bush and 47 percent for Kerry among likely voters. Include independent Ralph Nader in the mix and Bush runs 2 points ahead of Kerry (47 percent Bush, 45 percent Kerry, 5 percent Nader). Those kinds of findings drive Democrats crazy.

They're dismayed that, with all of Bush's problems in Iraq, the 9/11 commission hearings, and gasoline prices, Kerry hasn't surged into the lead. They look at a tied race and say, "Bad news—the glass is half empty." But it's also half full: Even though voters still don't know very much about Kerry, he is running neck and neck with a wartime president.

Democrats need to keep reminding themselves that this election is supposed to be a referendum on Bush. And the message of the latest Gallup Poll is clear: Bush is in trouble.