Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Can’t You Feel the Bush Fatigue?

[[P O L I T I C S]] * Word is there’s a new memo circulating among senior Republicans on Capitol Hill. It postulates that another devastating terrorist assault on the United States could put a quick end to the rapidly declining fortunes of the GOP and its standard bearer, George W. Bush--at once validating the troubled “war on terror” and helping to “restore [Bush’s] image as a leader of the American people.” According to the political Web site Capitol Hill Blue, this memo “says such a reversal in the President’s fortunes could keep the party from losing control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections.” And hey, what’s a few thousand lives lost to malevolent malcontents, so long as Republicans get to keep their prime office space in the Russell Senate Office Building, right?

It’s easy to see why Republican honchos might be willing to entertain even such desperate thinking as that right now. On top of the CIA leak scandal, the indictment of Dick Cheney’s “trusted” right-hand man, Harriet Miers’ withdrawal from consideration for a Supreme Court seat, and continuing questions about presidential adviser Karl Rove’s role in Plamegate, the party must deal as well with the pending prosecution of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist for insider stock trading, the continuing financial and political fallout from Hurricane Katrina, the escalating violence in Iraq, the failure of Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, and last week’s decisive Democratic victories across the country. In addition, several new polls show that Americans believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction, and they no longer trust the folks behind the steering wheel.

Is it any wonder, then, that there’s been a spike in the number of media stories about how the GOP is “in disarray” and losing control of the agenda?

A new Newsweek poll finds that “only 36 percent of Americans approve of the job [Bush] is doing as president, and an astounding 68 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country--the highest in Bush’s presidency.” But, the magazine adds, “that’s not the worst of it for the 43rd president of the United States, a leader who rode comfortably to reelection just a year ago.”* A paltry 42 percent of survey respondents said they believe the prez to be “honest and ethical.” (By comparison, just 29 percent of Americans say the same thing about Cheney; 26 percent of Republicans say Cheney is neither honest nor ethical.) The latest AP-Ipsos Poll confirms the public’s skepticism. “Almost six in 10 now say Bush is not honest,” the Associated Press reports, “and a similar number say his administration does not have high ethical standards.”

Much-publicized White House efforts to regain voter confidence by compelling administration staff (though not Bush or Cheney) to attend “ethics refresher courses” clearly are not sufficient. “It’s like shutting the barn door after the horse escaped,” Scranton, Pennsylvania, resident John Morrison told the AP. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll released yesterday shows that a 53 percent majority “trust what Bush says less than they trusted previous presidents while they were in office.” Asked to compare the trustworthiness of Bush versus President Bill Clinton, respondents said they trusted Clinton considerably more, by a 48 percent to 36 percent margin. The same poll showed Bush with a 37 percent job approval rating--a record low in that survey, but still higher than the findings in other polls by FOX News and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, both of which give the prez a 36 percent approval rating. So far, the most recent CBS News poll finds Bush’s approval score at its nadir: 35 percent. A subsequent survey by CBS News found that, if the 2004 presidential election were held today, 41 percent of registered voters would cast their ballots for the Democratic candidate, John Kerry--making him the 44th president of the United States--while only 36 percent would vote for Bush (with another 13 percent saying they’d pull the lever for “someone else,” and 6 percent who wouldn’t bother voting).

Bush’s fast-sinking popularity can be attributed to a variety of factors: dissatisfaction with rising gasoline prices, record-setting budget deficits (and the prez’s unwillingness to veto spending bills), the Plamegate scandal, continuing dissatisfaction over the government’s too little, too late response to hurricane relief, and the progress of the Iraq war. That war, which has already cost the lives of 2,069 U.S. soldiers, undermined respect for and trust in the United States worldwide, and shows no sign of ending in the foreseeable future, may have done more than anything else to sour the American public on Bush. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last week showed that a whopping 57 percent of respondents are now convinced that the prez misled them about the case (or, more accurately, cases) for invading Iraq back in 2003. The USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll shows a record-high number of respondents--60 percent--insisting that the war in Iraq is “not worth it,” while 54 percent say it was “a mistake” to send troops there in the first place. Although White House spokespeople insist that Bush doesn’t pay attention to polls, clearly his speech last Friday in Pennsylvania, during which he tried to defend himself against accusations that he manipulated prewar intelligence, questioned the patriotism of war critics, and insisted that congressional Democrats who authorized his use of force against Saddam Hussein had the same information he did (a statement contradicted by a front-page Washington Post story), was made in reaction to growing public dissatisfaction with his execution of the so-called war on terror. The White House strategy for lifting Bush’s approval seems to rest on discrediting Democrats--a “we were all wrong about Iraq, so don’t blame any of us” approach that sounds awfully defensive when it isn’t simply pathetic and small.

There’s no telling how much farther down Dubya’s job approval figures can go over the next three years. They’ve already matched the all-time-lows for Clinton (36 percent) and both Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson (35 percent), and he’s on his way to surpassing his father’s basement rating of 29 percent and Jimmy Carter’s low of 28 percent. Whether he can get into the history books for exceeding Richard Nixon’s rock-bottom job approval of 24 percent, or Harry Truman’s record 22 percent is anyone’s guess at this point. However, blogger Rich Proctor at The Smirking Chimp doesn’t see a 19 percent rating as unattainable, given the prez’s tendency to midjudge crises and promote unpopular policies. As John Kenneth White, a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, puts it in The Polling Report, “The George W. Bush presidency is on life support.”

But job performance isn’t the sole criterion by which to judge a president’s long-term potential for success, as Chris Bowers points out in the MyDD blog. In fact, by comparing Bush’s approval ratings with those of well-liked predecessors such as Clinton and Reagan--both of whom managed to recover from declines in public support--the current Oval Office holder suggests that he, too, can be a Comeback Kid. Bowers refutes this notion, writing that “In order to make Bush’s current predicament look like Reagan’s or Clinton’s, you have to ignore ‘disapproval’ entirely.” Yes, Bush’s mid-30s job performance stats may not be so dissimilar from the lows for Clinton and Reagan; but neither of those other men ever attained the current prez’s 61 percent disapproval rating. (Clinton’s disapproval high was 50 percent, while Reagan’s was 56 percent.) Only Nixon (with 66 percent disapproval) and Truman (with 67 percent) were more unpopular with the public than George W. Bush. Bowers continues:
When asking their new favorite question about how Bush can or will recover, it is important for members of the media to be aware of the historic nature of Bush’s unpopularity. No President to reach these lows has ever recovered. It is just as important for Democratic officials and activists around the country to realize this as well. When faced with the persistent pundit question as to how Bush can or will recover, the Democratic response must be simple, accurate, and to the point: Bush can’t recover. No President to reach these lows has ever recovered to once again have a functioning presidency. All of his political capital has been spent. By all historical comparisons, Bush’s Presidency is over.
If the depths and duration of Bush’s unpopularity are as yet unpredictable, the consequences of his ratings slide are already much in evidence. Douglas Forrester, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey, who last week lost miserably to his Democratic rival, U.S. Senator Jon Corzine, now blames his failure partly on being associated with the scandalized prez. Bush was no less Election Day poison for Jerry Kilgore, his party’s gubernatorial contender in the supposedly “red state” of Virginia. For weeks, Kilgore had looked as if he could trounce Democratic Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine, despite Kaine’s connection to the Old Dominion’s popular but term-limited governor, Mark Warner. Yet, following an 11th-hour stumping tour by Bush, Kilgore lost the race by 6 percentage points. (Even the Moonies-owned and reliably Republican-friendly Washington Times ran a headline following Kilgore’s defeat that read, “Bush ‘Sank’ GOP in Virginia.”) In the wake of the November 8 elections, Republicans are asking themselves whether Bush’s woes put both political aspirants and current officeholders from his own party at risk. And more than a few GOP incumbents, among them five-term Arizona congressman J.D. Hayworth, who has often served as a Bush apologist on TV news and talk shows, have made clear that they don’t relish “Typhoid Dubya’s” assistance in trying to win re-election next year. (Curiously, though, another Arizona Republican, U.S. Senator John McCain, who owes his 2000 primary-election routing to Bush spreading lies about his family and his fitness to serve in the White House, has gone out of his way to tie himself more closely to his former adversary.)

It isn’t a stretch, either, to trace the complete failure of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s special-election ballot initiatives (all four of them!) to the fact that he, like Bush, is a Republican--albeit a slightly more moderate one--at a time when Republicans are associated with corruption, legislative bungling, scandal, religious extremism, and even torture (see here and here). The GOP might only be fortunate in the fact that America’s midterm elections, in which considerably more high-level offices will be up for grabs, do not occur for another year. “If the midterms were held today,” remarks political analyst Larry Sabato, in light of last week’s Republican train wreck, “Democrats would win both houses of Congress.”

Democrats aren’t the only ones, however, who recognize Bush’s sudden weakness on numerous fronts; so do Republicans on Capitol Hill. Which is why they’ve been emboldened lately to ignore the prez’s marching orders. Last week, for instance, saw the GOP-controlled U.S. House reject the prez’s proposed budget cuts and turn thumbs down on his demand that oil drilling begin promptly in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Meanwhile, there’s a growing, bipartisan consensus on curbing at least some (though not nearly enough) of the police powers given to the Bush administration under the USA PATRIOT Act. And, as The Washington Post explains, earlier today “The Senate delivered President Bush its strongest rebuke yet on the conduct of the Iraq war, voting 98-0 to pass a defense policy bill that codifies the treatment of military detainees, establishes new legal rights for terrorism suspects and demands far more information from the White House on the progress of the conflict.” Expect to see more Republicans go off the reservation over the next year, hoping to protect themselves from the public’s displeasure with their ostensible “leader.” As veteran political analyst Charlie Cook notes in the National Journal, during a president’s second term, and especially “when a president’s numbers fall below a certain point, the feeling is that every man is for himself, that while the president’s name will never again be on a ballot, theirs will be. As such, the president is in less of a position to keep the troops quiet and obedient.”

But riding Bush’s coattails this far may have already mortally wounded some more vulnerable Republican incumbents. I think here of Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania), locked in a seriously lopsided battle against state treasurer Bob Casey Jr., and Senator Jim Talent (R-Missouri), who, according to a recent Rasmussen Reports poll, is already running slightly behind Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill in a race where “support for each candidate is closely correlated to perceptions of President George W. Bush,” according to Rasmussen. And looking ahead to next year’s midterm elections, the prez is already proving to be a serious drag on his party. Asked whether they are expecting to vote for a Democrat or a Republican in those elections, 53 percent of respondents to Newsweek’s latest poll said a Democrat, while only 36 percent said they’d prefer a Republican. The USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll found that “fewer than one in 10 adults say they would prefer a congressional candidate who is a Republican and who agrees with Bush on most major issues ...”; “even among Republicans, seven of 10 are most likely to back a candidate who has at least some disagreements with the president.”

The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll delivered equally dire news to the GOP. As the Journal reports, “Americans want Democrats to take control of Congress in next year’s election, by a margin of 48 percent to 37 percent. The 11-point gap is the widest enjoyed by either party on that question since the poll began asking it in 1994.” 1994 just happened to be the year that Republicans took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades, though Kenneth Baer writes in The New Republic that Democrats shouldn’t read too much into this parallel. “The Republican victory that year was the product of a confluence of unique events in American political history--from changes in campaign finance law to long-term partisan shifts--that are impossible to replicate. President Bush’s sinking popularity may hurt his party next fall but, unlike Bill Clinton’s disappointing first two years in office, it probably won’t be enough to spark a full-fledged takeover by the opposition party.”

Making an accurate prediction at this point, though, is a fool’s escapade. Bush has already seen two dramatic reversals of his fortunes, one after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the other after Hurricane Katrina made New Orleans an underwater city at the end of August. His future might hold yet another unexpected turn, raising his standing and lifting the hopes of his fellow Republicans. Or the prez could try apologizing for Iraq as a way to regain public favor, though his constitutional inability to admit to errors probably makes that unlikely. He might also try getting out among the populace, listening openly to what people have to say, rather than hiding behind carefully scripted rah-rah events. But he’s showing no such inclinations; in fact, as the right-leaning Insight Magazine reports, the besieged Bush is increasingly adopting a bunker mentality.
President Bush feels betrayed by several of his most senior aides and advisors and has severely restricted access to the Oval Office, administration sources say. The president’s reclusiveness in the face of relentless public scrutiny of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and White House leaks regarding CIA operative Valerie Plame has become so extreme that Mr. Bush has also reduced contact with his father, former President George H.W. Bush ...
Unlike Reagan before him, who deftly tacked toward the political center at the height of the Iran-Contra scandal, striving to broaden support for his ailing presidency, Bush has chosen to move still farther out into right field. He’s begun wrapping himself in that hoariest of conservative causes, a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution (though he hasn’t yet resurrected his 2004 campaign talk about a federal anti-gay marriage amendment), and he quickly replaced his Supreme Court nomination of the more moderate Miers with that of New Jersey Judge Samuel Alito Jr., a familiar conservative who’s on record for liberalizing machine-gun possession and opposing abortion rights, and whose nomination was guaranteed to start a fight with Senate Democrats.

Then again, asks Kurt Andersen in a recent New York magazine column, what choice does Bush have? “Now more than ever”--with his job approval ratings in such debilitating decline--“the president must pay absolute obeisance to his far-right base,” Andersen writes, “because pretty much only the base is sticking with him--and only conditionally, as the shocking mass defection on Miers showed. W. is their bitch now. For the rest of his presidency, he must govern as a divider rather than a uniter, encouraging his theocratic allies to overplay their hand, which will make a broad-based political revival even harder.”

If not downright impossible. For as pollster John Zogby observed, when asked by the Houston Chronicle whether Bush has any chance of regaining public trust: “It’s kind of like virginity. It is hard to get back.”

* In fact, Bush won the 2004 presidential contest by the smallest margin of any incumbent president in American history.

READ MORE:I Was Wrong, But So Were You: Parsing Bush’s New Mantra,” by Fred Kaplan (Slate); “Bush Rewrites History To Criticize His Antiwar Critics,” by David Corn (The Nation); “Bush’s Magnificent Deception,” by Thomas Oliphant (The Boston Globe); “Withdrawal Symptoms: Will Iraq Make Russell Feingold the New Howard Dean?” by Michael Crowley (The New Republic); “The Right Way in Iraq,” by John Edwards (The Washington Post); “Aid and Comfort,” by William Rivers Pitt (TruthOut); “Bush’s Third Campaign,” by Dan Froomkin (The Washington Post); “Another Set of Scare Tactics,” by E.J. Dionne (The Washington Post); “Decoding Mr. Bush’s Iraq Denials” (The New York Times); “The Dems’ Newt Ideas: Can They Reverse the Republican Revolution?” by John Heilemann (New York); “An Opening for Democrats, However Slim,” by Robin Toner (The New York Times); “Bush Effort to Aid GOP Falters” (AP); “Bush Leaves GOP in Crisis,” by Patrick J. Buchanan (Human Events); “GOP’s Legislative Agenda Losing Steam” (AP); “Bush Gives Management a Bad Name,” by Molly Ivins (AlterNet); “The Other Cloud on Republican Horizon,” by Gail Russell Chaddock (The Christian Science Monitor); “Bushes’ War Against the Media,” by Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times); “Move Over, James Buchanan. Time to Declare Bush Worst ... President ... Ever?” (The Carpetbagger Report).

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