War and the Polls
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The latest sign that the Republicans are in a rough patch came when Senator McCain was quoted by the Associated Press this weekend as saying that approval ratings are so low, “you get down to blood relatives and paid staffers.” The American economy is growing at a healthy pace, and unemployment is low by historic measures at 4.7%. The terrorists haven’t succeeded in attacking in North America since September 11, 2001, or the anthrax letters that followed shortly thereafter. Given the good news, why is President Bush’s approval rating mired in the 30s?
Karl Rove’s idea that the numbers are attributable to a public that is “sour” on the war in Iraq doesn’t quite compute. The same May 15 Washington Post/ABC News Poll that put Mr. Bush’s approval rating at 33% found that 48% of those polled said the war in Iraq has contributed to the long-term security of America. Even that poll probably understates support for Mr. Bush and for the war, because it is a poll of all adults rather than of likely voters, who have tended to be more pro-Bush than the overall population.
Whatever is driving down Mr. Bush’s poll ratings, it isn’t the flap over the National Security Agency’s reported collection of phone records. The Washington Post poll found that two-thirds of Americans wouldn’t be bothered if the NSA had a record of the phone numbers they had called. Nor is it press bias; a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found that plenty of Americans realize that the press wants the Democrats to win. They presumably discount for that bias while consuming news. It isn’t immigration, either; the Fox News poll says two-thirds of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents would all support the idea of increasing legal immigration provided America could stop illegal immigration. A CBS News poll found Mr. Bush’s approval rating got a bump upward following his televised speech on immigration.
For our part, we have little doubt the president’s popularity rating would recover smartly if a presidential election were to approach and voters were to have to focus on a choice between Mr. Bush and not a platonic ideal of a perfect president but a flesh-and-blood Democrat. Some of the unease in respect of the economy – unease that turns up not only in political polls but also in places such as the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment – may be the result of experience gained in the late 1990s dot-com boom. And it may be healthy, in the sense that Americans realize that there is a business cycle.
Mayor Giuliani, who has embraced Mr. Bush’s tax cuts and his policy of pre-emption in the war on Islamist terrorists, beats Senator Clinton in early 2008 presidential polling in New York State, which leans Democratic. Some of the dissatisfaction pollsters are finding with Mr. Bush no doubt represents disappointment in the president’s follow-through on the issues he ran on – tort reform, private investment accounts as part of Social Security, and, most of all, expanding freedom abroad and aggressively prosecuting the war on the Islamist terrorists.
Mr. Bush himself tends to shrug at poll numbers and take a long view. In a recent interview with a reporter for the German newspaper Bild, the president said, “I don’t care whether they like me at the cocktail parties, or not. I want to be able to leave this office with my integrity intact.” He spoke of three great wartime leaders of America – Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt – all of whom were subject to vilification and second-guessing of their wartime strategy. Yet we wouldn’t be surprised if the sense that Mr. Bush has pulled back – on the Saudis, the Iranians, the Syrians, and the Egyptians – were feeding some of the disappointment registering in the polls.
One simply can’t pause in the middle of a war. Mr. Bush grasps the point. When Bild asked the president, “Do you really believe we have a chance to win the war against terrorism?” Mr. Bush said of the enemy, “They can be defeated, and they will be defeated – so long as we don’t lose our nerve.” The best way for Mr. Bush to demonstrate that we haven’t lost our nerve is to stay on the offensive in a war in which the enemy is still active, is seeking to assemble nuclear weapons, and is, without a doubt, preparing to attack our own shores again at the first opportunity. If Mr. Bush does that, the polls will move in his favor.