Interestingly, poll analysts ascribe Bush’s tumble less to the worsening Iraq war than they do to “dissatisfaction over soaring gasoline prices”--something that had Republicans worried even before Hurricane Katrina wiped out refineries and oil-drilling platforms along the Gulf Coast, almost guaranteeing a surge in gas prices. “More ominously for the president,” the Post explains, “six in 10 Americans said there are steps the administration could take to reduce gas prices. Slightly more than a third say the recent run-up has been due to factors beyond the administration’s control.” (No wonder the White House has agreed to release some of the nearly 700 million barrels of oil kept in federal petroleum reserves along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast.)
Bush, though, isn’t the only one who came out looking bad in this survey. Only 37 percent of respondents voiced approval of the way the Republican-controlled Congress has been executing its duties. That, the Post says, is “the lowest rating for lawmakers in nearly eight years.” Which should provide good news for Democrats--except that it doesn’t, because the poll also found that “slightly more than half of those surveyed” were dissatisfied with congressional Dems for not opposing Bush more forcefully on both Iraq and other administration issues. Six out of 10 Independents agreed that Democratic leaders have been “too meek” in defying Bush.
If there’s an upside to this last fact, it’s that Dems have considerable leeway, though not much time, to improve their standings between now and the midterm elections in November 2006. They cannot depend solely on the self-immolation of Republicans, but must make clearer to the voting public just what they stand for--and, equally important, what they stand against. Perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in the area of the Iraq conflict. Fifty-three percent of respondents to a recent AP-Ipsos poll said that entering this war was a mistake to begin with, while only 42 percent still believe that launching a war against Saddam Hussein was the right move. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed disapproved of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war. Yet so far, the highest-profile Democrat calling for a plan just to begin bringing beleaguered U.S. troops home from Iraq is U.S. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. As Chris Bowers instructs Democrats over at MyDD, “saying you supported the war, but Bush conducted it wrong, isn’t good enough for the public. Similarly, saying that you opposed the war but think we should stay as long as it takes isn’t good enough. ... Talking about poorly armored Humvee’s isn’t good enough for people anymore. They want to hear about withdrawal”--though, polls suggest, not an immediate withdrawal.
Republicans are plainly worried about the damage this continuing war--which has already taken the lives of 1,883 U.S. soldiers, plus another 200 “coalition” troops and an unreliably counted number of Iraqi lives--might do to their party at all levels, come November 2006. And worried they ought to be, according to Charlie Cook, of the Cook Political Report. There’s a current theory circulating among poll watcher, he writes,
that the American public can be broken down into four distinct groups: those that have always been against the war; those who were for it but now believe we’ve blown it and should pull out; those who supported the war, believe the invasion was successful but think that the aftermath has been completely blown, yet would hate to see us withdraw immediately and lose all we’ve invested; and those that have always been for the war.So, why aren’t more prominent Democrats following Feingold’s lead, and, if not advocating a prompt and complete pullout from Iraq, at least calling for serious modifications in the military strategy there and for the prospect of troop reductions in the near future? Where are Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry to point out, as the Christian Science Monitor did recently, that Bush’s Iraq war has already cost the nation more than World War I ever did and is “rapidly shaping up to be the third-most expensive war in United States history” (behind only World War II, Vietnam, and Korea)? Where are Evan Bayh and Joe Biden to hammer home the fact that the Iraq war is now costing more per month than the Vietnam War did?
Pollsters say that the first group--always against--makes up about 30 percent of the electorate, while the second group--those that started off in favor of the war but now see it as a lost cause--includes about 20 percent. These two categories total half of all voters in opposition.
The third group--those that are conflicted because they see the effort as doomed and casualties increasing, yet still hate to see us ‘cut and run’--makes up another 25 percent. The last 25 percent remains supportive. What this means is that only a quarter of the American people are standing behind Bush on the war. The other three-quarters are either against him or highly critical of how he has handled the conflict and/or the aftermath. [Emphasis mine]
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Dick Polman contends that at the very moment Bush is most vulnerable on the mess in Iraq, Democrats are prevented from coming up with a consensus plan “for ending the bloodshed and winning the peace” because of internecine disagreements over how forcefully to challenge Bush on this issue. “The liberals, emboldened by growing antiwar sentiment in the polls, essentially want a timetable for pulling out the U.S. troops, but the centrists think that such a stance would enable Bush’s spin team to once again paint the Democrats as national-security wimps,” Polman remarks. Perhaps the most influential Dem endeavoring to steer a course between these two opposing camps is former NATO supreme commander and hesitant 2004 presidential candidate Wesley Clark. He wrote recently in The Washington Post that, rather than yanking troops out immediately or announcing a particular date to begin withdrawing, the United States needs “a strategy to create a stable, democratizing and peaceful state in Iraq--a strategy the administration has failed to develop and articulate.” That strategy has to be three-pronged: “diplomatic, political and military.” Gene Lyons observes, in his Arkansas Democrat Gazette column, that “Almost none [of Clark’s proposals], frankly, has any likelihood of being enacted. Hire 10,000 Arab-American translators? Convene a regional security council to hash things out with Iraq’s neighbors, i.e., Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc.? Not gonna happen.” Yet the fact that Clark is putting forth what could be the foundation of a broader Democratic plan to resolve the Iraq war, while Bush continues to insist on “staying the course” (no matter how disastrous that course has proved thus far), has to be considered a step in the right direction.
ADDENDUM: As if Bush hasn’t already tried to rewrite the reasons for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he offered yet another rationale during a speech yesterday: to protect Iraq’s vast oil fields from being taken over by terrorists. Backdropped by the new aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, Bush told a crowd in San Diego that “If Zarqawi and bin Laden gain control of Iraq, they would create a new training ground for future terrorist attacks; they’d seize oil fields to fund their ambitions; they could recruit more terrorists by claiming an historic victory over the United States and our coalition.” Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had previously denied that Iraq’s oil supplies played a part in the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein, though war opponents have for a long time suggested that oil was a prime motivation for starting this conflict.
READ MORE: “Sorry Mr. President, You’re No FDR,” by Fred Kaplan (Slate); “Ex-Counterterrorism Chief Cites Rise in Attacks,” by Walter Pincus (The Washington Post); “Democrats Still Backing Senseless War,” by Helen Thomas (Hearst Newspapers); “The War Is Over; Time to Blame the Liberals,” by John Steinberg (The Raw Story); “Anti-War Mom Glad She Didn’t Meet Bush” (AP); “Camp Casey Goes to Washington,” by Rob Patterson (Salon).