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August 09, 2005

Reading the Tea Leaves, Homefront Edition
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

We’ve had a barrage of bad polling numbers for the President on Iraq and national security (as well as domestic issues) in the last week.  It's worth walking through them together and sifting for nuggets:

Newsweek's poll gives Bush a 34% approval rating for his handling of Iraq, his lowest-ever and first time below 40%.  50% of respondents said troops should be home now or within a year [with 12% volunteering “now” even though Newsweek, oddly, doesn’t ask about immediate withdrawal!]

USA Today/Gallup does ask about immediate withdrawal, and gets one in three respondents to say it's a good idea.  This one has the most creative questions -- 57% also say the war in Iraq has made the US "less safe."

A few days earlier, an ABC poll gave Bush 38% approval on Iraq and noted that the fall-away in support was strongest among Midwesterners and young men and women without a college education – some of the folks who’ve been his strongest supporters up to now and who are disproportionately likely to know members of the Armed Forces or be veterans themselves.

Things to note and ponder before you get too excited (or as you decide how to focus your excitement):

Two-thirds of ABC poll respondents described Bush as “strong and likable” even as 6 in 10 described the country as “headed down the wrong track.  Folks who still don’t understand why it’s a bad idea, as well as flat-out wrong, to go around asserting that “Bush is stupid,” please take note. 

E.J. Dionne's analysis Tuesday includes a point that should be food for thought for activists and ’06 candidates alike: “Americans, said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, don’t want to ‘relitigate the war.’”

The national security gap is out there as big and bad as ever.  What does Bush get his highest marks for?  Homeland security, per the Newsweek poll (51% approval, with energy, environment and Social Security all below 40%).

Lastly, before you get too excited about peeling off Midwesterners and young folks on national security issues, read  this account of recent focus groups held with mostly non-college –educated Midwesterners and Southerners.  It’s damning on the national security deficit progressives face, and grim in documenting how this subset of voters assumes that leaders who share their conservative cultural values will also share their economic concerns.  The authors also remark on the level of detail at which Americans want to engage these issues, something that the foreign policy establishment and our beloved fans often forget – “they didn’t talk about troop levels… [but] They have a clear sense of where Congress should be focusing its efforts.”

What’s encouraging – if progressives pay attention – is the two specific ideas for making up ground on security policy that came up in focus group discussions.  One is veterans’ benefits; participants were very aware of cuts to veterans’ funding and urged a firmer commitment to keeping the promises made to America’s veterans.  The second is energy policy:  participants strongly favored “an ambitious effort that combines public and private resources toward” the goal of decreasing our debilitating dependence on foreign oil.


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Pretty slim pickings, if veteran's benefits and energy policy are the only issues progressives might exploit in the current natural security environment.

Let's cut to the chase. What really matters are not these poll numbers, but what kind of response there will be after the next successful terrorist attack on American soil. For the Dems to have a chance, they will have to respond quickly, forthrightly, and in unison, with the kind of unimpeachable logic and reasoned policy initiatives we have seen from Tony Blair recently, combined with a foreign policy initiative proposal commensurate with the status of the US as the world's lone superpower.

If and when we are attacked as Britain has just been attacked, what should our response be? Now is the time to figure that out. The future of the Dems' reputation on national security hangs in the balance.

Enough with reading the tea leaves of the political moment. There is more important work to do.

JFH is right. If all we can talk about is veteran's benefits and energy policy, then we might as well not run a candidate in '08.

What you seem to be saying is that the Dems should pursue the same strategy they followed the last 2 elections: keep our head down on the big issues where Bush has an advantage, and whittle away at the small tactical issues where he's already vulnerable.

Americans don't want to "relitigate" the war? Too bad, because we're going to have to. If we lose this war, the Repubs are going to need a scapegoat, and we're it. We need to hang this disaster around their necks starting today, or they will hang it around ours tomorrow.

We have to focus on Bush's "strength" and destroy it by constantly repeating the truth: that he doesn't know what he's doing in this war he can't even name. There's just no avoiding this.

Americans right now want leaders to keep them safe; but Americans also want to know how we can avoid these situations (war, terrorist attacks) in the future. They intuitively understand that a big reason we are entrenched in the Middle East is due to our dependence on foreign oil.

So I agree with JohnFH and Cal. We need to present a larger theme commensurate with the historical significance of the challenges facing the United States today. (Think "new" Marshall Plan.)

But I think the real obstacle preventing progressives from making such an argument right now is the way conservatives have defined the terms of political discourse. I mean, they are actually *saying* that they want to fight terrorism now and achieve energy independence in the future. That is a sound strategy. But what are they actually *doing*?

Consider the energy bill. The progressive talking point should be: “Bush’s energy policy does nothing to enhance our national security.”

I have a friend who is a professional magician. After seeing how easy it is for him to get people to draw the right card, look in the right direction, and pick the right number, I have even less faith in these polls and focus groups than I did before.

Americans want leadership. People who run their lives based on polls and focus groups are not leaders - they are followers of the crowd. A leader has a vision of what is right, of where the group should go, and has the tenacity and charisma to persuade others to agree with him and follow him. Every misguided Democratic attempt to take the latest national policy pulse, fashion an agenda in accordance with it, and then get on our knees with position papers in hand only makes matters worse. Most Americans despise beggers and flatterers.

What we should pay attention to is not so much the policies people say they want, but the personal qualities they admire and respond to. Then, rather than try to figure out how our established suits can "fake it" in those areas too, we might ask ourselves why it is that we have not been able to attract and elevate more people with those actual qualities to the leadership positions in our party.

The only number that means anything to me in all those results is that 2/3 of people believe Bush is strong and likeable. If that is so, then that is precisely the ground on which he must be attacked. That is the secret of his power. No matter how much people lose confidence in his policies, they continue divorce the policies from the man. So Bush must be made to seem less of a man. He should be made to appear weak and unlikeable.

The first one really is quite possible. Bush spent his entire first term sucking his thumb while more experiences players like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Tenet and Wolfowitz fought their own personal policy and turf battles, ran ragged and crisscrossing circles around him, and drove US foreign policy into a crisis of incoherence and indecision. This is strong? Strength isn't the same thing as knowing how to shoot a steely-eyed glare into the camara lens. Why aren't more people calling him out on this?

And we know that Bush was not always the most popular kid in class on his way to the top. Many people have found him distinctly unlikeable. Surely there is some room here for Democrats to get in a few good blows in this area, if they have the stomach for it.

Bush's poor poll numbers hold little promise for progressives. Why? Two reasons. First, our political system in effect requires a constructive vote of no-confidence for a change in leadership. Bush's numbers on national security may be sagging, but I see no evidence that Democrats' are rising, and its the relative, not the absolute, that matters. Second, progressives - which I am proud to call myself - should pray for victory in Iraq, regardless of the Oval Office's current occupant, not just for patriotic reasons, but for short-sighted political reasons as well. The American people have reached the verdict that Bush was guilty of misdirection and incompetence in Iraq. Its a political albatross the GOP will not soon shed. We Democrats would do best to look beyond Iraq to the larger struggle against terrorism and seek advantage there. Its the next war, not the current one, we should prepare for.

...progressives... should pray for victory in Iraq, regardless of the Oval Office's current occupant, not just for patriotic reasons, but for short-sighted political reasons as well

I think you might be wrong on both counts. If Bush wins this war it will almost certainly benefit the Republican party. You could make a good case that Roosevelt screwed up in WW2 by not being better prepared for the Japanese attack, wasting resources retaking the Philippines, invading Italy etc. -- but all is forgiven if the war is won.

As for your assumption that every patriot must be praying to win, it might be in our national interest to lose this war. Here's why:

1) I don't want the president -- any president -- to be rewarded for lying to the American people about a fundamental issue. This is a bad precedent for our democracy.

2) There are disturbing signs -- even now, with the war going badly -- that Bush may want to extend the fighting to Iran. A win in Iraq -- which even in the best case scenario will be a near thing, requiring a lot of luck -- will almost certainly encourage Bush to double his bets by attacking Iran. He might do it anyway.

3) Perhaps worst of all (and related to #2), it will further reinforce the Republican view that their idea of governance is right -- that evidence doesn't matter, that all you need is the right instincts, and everything will work out fine. After all, the neocons were totally wrong about Soviet military capabilities, but once the Soviet Union collapsed they successfully spun themselves as visionaries who saw it coming the whole time.

And it will be a lot harder to argue next time that allies really are important, or that we need to listen to the generals and other experts, if we were able to muddle through in Iraq doing none of these things.

OTOH, I realize that an American loss in Iraq could be a disaster for America and the Middle East. So I'm not hoping America loses, and I'm certainly not rooting for the nihilistic insurgents. But it is true that American democracy will be hugely damaged by this war, win or lose -- and that's a good reason why a patriot would have conflicting feelings about either outcome.

JFH, Cal and Jeremy -
Of course progressives should be talking about "big issues." (energy policy is a pretty big one, to my mind, but I understand what you mean.) The point is finding and using the right entry points to get various sub-groups of the citizenry to listen and take progressive ideas seriously AT THE SAME TIME that we are also producing whatever qualifies as a big idea for you. People's continuing need to pose this as an either-or question puzzles me, frankly. On any given day Democracy Arsenal might post on big ideas, and Kevin Drum on tactics; or Howard Dean could be ginning up big ideas and Hillary Clinton coming up with clever ways of moving them into the public discourse. Or vice versa. But the back-and-forth sniping over strategy vs. tactics is a dreadful waste of energy. We need both.

The point is finding and using the right entry points to get various sub-groups of the citizenry to listen and take progressive ideas seriously AT THE SAME TIME that we are also producing whatever qualifies as a big idea for you.

This war is unpopular with a majority of the country. For most people, defeating Al-Qaeda and the war in Iraq -- now related issues -- is THE big idea when it comes to foreign policy. If we can convince people that we can handle these 2 issues, nothing else matters politically. Conversely, if we remain far behind Bush in this area, convincing people that we'd do a better job on veterans' benefits isn't going to help much.

You can say the Dems need both strategy and tactics, but frankly, much of what I see from the Dems is tactics only. Kerry tried to hug Bush on strategy and find "entry points" on tactics and it was a disaster.

But even on a tactical level, I'm not sure you're right. I suspect the support for an "ambitious" energy policy is soft. How many people would support a gas tax or raising the CAFE standards? Not that I'm against trying, but it might be a smaller entry point than you imagine.

I've admired Heather Hurlburt's writing for years and don't mean this note as a criticism of her. She was right to point out the need for more serious, concentrated attention to national security.

But it is weird to read her post just after Ari Berman's assault on the Dem leadership re: Iraq in the Nation. Berman is not discussing veterans' benefits, but the truly consequential embrace -- one guy's already said "hug" -- Dems had for the war in Iraq, from Senators down through the foundations to the punditocracy. That has made it very difficult to pound out a policy that goes beyond "raise and call," as Gary Hart says.

I hope the Democratic response to the next terrorist attack is not going to be an iteration of Bombing the Wrong Country. As we are seeing this reveals not strength but panic. "Beyond panic" might be a good slogan for Senators Biden and Clinton to consider adopting.

Dan Tompkins

" Kerry tried to hug Bush on strategy and find "entry points" on tactics and it was a disaster."

Does "...wrong war, wrong place, wrong time..." remind you of anything?

In what bizarro-world can that be described as "tried to hug Bush on strategy"?

From where I'm standing, it looks like a lot of Democratic senators remembered the first Gulf War, and didn't want to be on the record as having voted against a victory. If anyone has a better explanation of why Kerry voted 'nay' back in '91, when the US had explicit UN authorization, and 'yea' in '03, when we didn't, I'd really like to hear it.

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