Talk of War Makes Political Changes

James Zogby’s Column

It was just one month ago that Terry McAuliffe, Chairman of the Democratic Party delivered a strongly worded critique of the Bush Administration’s handling of the reins of government.  It was intended to open a new round in the 2002 congressional elections.  Democrats had taken the political temperature of the country and had determined that it was now safe to publicly challenge the President.

In the months following September 11, 2001, many Democrats had shied away from criticizing Bush.  The public had developed a strong personal connection with the President, and his high favorabilty ratings, therefore, removed him as a target for criticism.  But after a summer of corporate collapses and scandals (including new revelations about Bush’s and Vice President Cheney’s own business dealings) the political situation had changed.

A mid-August poll of U.S. opinion showed that for the first time since September 11, a majority of Americans had become dissatisfied with the way the country was being run, and placed the economy above terrorism as the most important issue facing the United States.  As a result, Bush’s personal ratings as President had also dropped by almost 15 percentage points. 

At that time, one Republican analyst noted, “the bottom has fallen out of the mood of the country.”  In contrast to this was the assessment of a leading Democrat who noted that “just a few weeks ago Republicans were on top, but now the public is more receptive to our message.”

In crafting their message Democrats came prepared with polling and studies which showed a dramatic shift in the public’s attitudes.  For almost one year the Democrats could not break through with their agenda.  With terrorism and the “war in Afghanistan” dominating the front pages of the nation’s news, little attention was being given to economic or budgetary matters.

But with war news off the front pages, the public was now focused on corporate scandals, a collapsing stock market, rising health care costs and increasing unemployment.  While polls showed that Americans had more confidence in the ability of Republicans to defend the U.S. in time of war, they also showed that Democrats were more trusted to defend the economic concerns of average citizens.

And so it was in this setting that the Democrat’s Chairman set out to launch his party’s first bold attack on the Bush White House.  He charged that the Administration had “cynically used 9/11 to push his agenda,” and pointed to the results: a worsening economy and budget deficits.  Questions about the President’s and Vice President’s pre-election business dealings were also raised.

Clearly, in mid-August, Democrats were feeling emboldened, while Republicans were on the defensive. But then Iraq entered onto the political scene. By the end of August a number of factors combined to push Iraq into the center of the national debate.  Congressional hearings and a series of articles by prominent former government officials all challenged what appeared to be the prevailing view within the Bush Administration that a war with Iraq was inevitable.

The debate grew so that by early September one commentator observed, “Iraq is now the only game in town.”  And with critics of a U.S. unilateral war now dominating the discussion, U.S. public opinion, once solidly behind a war effort, was beginning to drift in the opposite direction.

Thus, on September 4, President Bush decided to take control of the debate.  He convened congressional leaders at the White House, presented his position and challenged them to debate the matter in Congress and to support a resolution backing his leadership. 

For one month some Democrats had been rejecting what they feared was the White House’s unilateral moves toward war.  Senators insisted that the President could not make this decision to launch a war without congressional support and approval.  And so on face value, it might appear that Bush gave the Democrats a victory by pressing them to do exactly what they had been demanding for many weeks.  In fact, the opposite is true.

What Bush and the Republicans appear to want right now, is not congressional approval to make a war.  They want to keep the public’s attention on this issue and off of the issues that had dominated the nation’s news during the summer.  To an extent, this has already occurred.

A prominent and national political newsletter analyzed news coverage of key issues from the second week in August to the first week in September.  At the beginning of this period, for example, those were 243 stories in U.S. newspapers about Vice President Cheney’s questionable business dealings.  During the first week in September, there were only 38 stories about this matter.  On the other hand, during the same period, articles about Vice President Cheney’s position on Iraq increased to more than 1,000 stories in the first week in September alone.

War talk had eclipsed the discussion of corporate scandals.  And Republicans were the beneficiaries of this shift.  By September the President’s favorability ratings had started move, once again, in a position direction.  Last week, an analyst noted that while, “Americans have considerable hesitation about the wisdom of attacking Iraq, they’ve begun to support the President…Bush’s position has, therefore, begun to improve in the past few weeks.”

It remains true that the public is still deeply concerned about the economy and corporate corruption and give stronger support to the ability of Democrats to deal with these issues.  But the problem that Democrats now have is that the national news is “All Iraq, all the time.”  And even with their questions, public opinion gives Republicans a 20-percentage point advantage over Democrats in the issues of protecting the country from external threats.

So it is that just the “talk of war” has strengthened the Republican’s hand and improved their chances in November’s election.  A significant political change in just one month.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.