Stronger Than He Seems

Things are looking up for George W. Bush and maybe for his party. The Democrats failed to win the special election in the 50th Congressional District of California June 6. Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed on June 7. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said he would not seek an indictment of chief Bush adviser Karl Rove on June 12. Bush made a dazzling surprise trip to Baghdad on June 13 and followed up with a confident press conference the next day. The Senate voted 93 to 6 on June 15 and the House 256 to 153 on June 16 against U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

A turning point in the president's political fortunes? Maybe. But I'm inclined to think that Bush and the Republicans were not in quite as much trouble as most in the press thought, and I'm not sure these developments will produce an immediate surge in Bush's poll ratings. Why?

Start with the proposition that Bush's low standings in the polls have more to do with competence than ideology. It starts with Katrina: The president was unable to prevent the physical destruction of a large part of a major central city. That's bound to hurt, whoever's fault it was. The struggle in Iraq seemed to be continuing without an end in sight--and mainstream media have done their best to ignore or belittle signs of progress. The Harriet Miers nomination, the Dubai ports deal, the failure to get Congress to consider Social Security reform--all contribute to an impression of things out of control. That's not good for an incumbent president. In addition, Bush is at odds with the Republican base on the hot issue of immigration. So his support from Republicans is less solid than it was until 2005.


No alternative? But impressions of presidential incompetence do not necessarily translate to votes for the other party. We saw that in the California 50th race, where the Democratic nominee got 45 percent of the vote, just 1 percent more than John Kerry won in the district in 2004. To read the mainstream media, you would suppose that millions of enraged Democrats are ready to storm the polling places in record numbers and throw the evil Republicans out. But actual election returns don't seem to bear that out. Turnout has been robust in some states (Ohio), low in others (California), with no clear pattern. We haven't seen much in the way of a disproportionately large turnout increase for Democrats. That may come next November. Or it may not. Polls, unfortunately, aren't good at projecting turnout.

Also, impressions of presidential incompetence are not necessarily set in stone. They can be altered by visibly good performance or just by the turn of events. Such as, perhaps, the successful targeting of Zarqawi, or the stand-up of the Iraqi government brought to our screens by Bush's trip to Iraq. These show what generally goes unseen in mainstream media coverage: the competence of U.S. troops and the growth of a capable Iraqi government and Army. But the process takes time. The news that U.S. and Iraqi forces are hunting down the terrorists listed in Zarqawi's documents provides a narrative of continuing successes. But that narrative needs to be sustained and extended to produce a turnaround in American public opinion. So the scoffers are probably right when they say not to expect an immediate jump in Bush's job ratings. But the impression--conveyed over time by visible events--that things are under control and moving ahead could produce such a change.

In the meantime, Republicans are trying to make this a comparative election between Republicans and Democrats, not just an up-or-down vote on Bush. Senate and House Republicans last week staged debates over whether to pull out of Iraq now or stay on. Democrats complained that these were meaningless debates aimed (as they said the debates on the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages were) at dividing voters. But on these issues it is the Democrats--their officeholders and their voters--who are dvided, while the Republicans, with a few exceptions, are all on one side. The Democrats have profited politically from bad news from Iraq. Good news puts things in a different light and raises the question of just what Democrats would do if in power. For the moment they are, as ranking House Armed Services Democrat Ike Skelton said, "absolutely" divided. That's not a good posture from which to face the voters.


By Michael Barone
  • CBSNews

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