CQPolitics.com asked its Board of Advisors the following:
President Bush and top administration officials have engaged in a series of speeches — keyed to Monday’s fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — that seek to directly identify Iraq as a crucial battleground in the international war on terror and warn that a U.S. military withdrawal from that nation before “the job is done” will embolden America’s adversaries and increase the likelihood of attacks on U.S. soil.
Have these speeches, aimed at stemming the sharp drop in support for the war in Iraq and Bush’s foreign policy in general that has been seen in public opinion polls, changed the political dynamics of these issues in this midterm election year?
Today, six professional political analysts — David P. Rebovich, Rhodes Cook, Bruce E. Cain, Charles S. Bullock III, Susan A. MacManus and Dotty Lynch — provide their views on these questions.
David P. Rebovich: Polls have long shown that most Americans disagree with the president’s policy toward Iraq and that problems with the war may result in the Democrats gaining a majority in the House and perhaps the U.S. Senate this fall.
So what did President Bush decide to do with Election Day two months away? Rather than try to rationalize, much less apologize for, the slow progress in Iraq, he went on the offense. With the emotional five-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks approaching, Bush used the bully pulpit to speak optimistically and enthusiastically about his administration’s efforts to fight terrorism abroad and protect the homeland.
The president’s series of speeches had two key purposes. One was to rally Republicans, some of whom are disenchanted with Bush’s and the GOP-controlled Congress’ performance the last few years and are disinclined to show up at the polls on Nov. 7. Turnout by Republican base voters will be especially important in those districts and states — and there are many — where GOP incumbents are in tight races.
Bush’s second purpose was to put the Democrats on the defensive and make them seem like mere complainers while the White House and GOP-controlled Congress wrestle with the complexities of fighting terrorism in Iraq. And, as the president explained in his speeches, while the administration prevented several planned attacks on America since 9/11.
The implications of this approach are clear. The president wants to make the point that electing Democratic majorities in Congress will undermine the war on terrorism abroad and at home, thus jeopardizing the nation’s short- and long-term well-being.
This assertion might have some political bite except for two recent developments. The Senate Intelligence Committee just concluded that, contrary to Bush’s claims, there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were connected prior to the American invasion of Iraq. And the Democrats announced that they do, in fact, have some specific alternatives to the administration’s policies.
Last week, the Senate Democrats announced an elaborate plan that they call the Real Security Act of 2006. This plan contains reasonable proposals for changing the course in Iraq, refocusing the war on terror and bringing terrorists to justice, implementing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, protecting transportation systems and improving intelligence capabilities. The Democrats’ ideas are worthy of consideration, if hard to put on a bumper sticker, and are subject to the same critical analysis and debate that the president’s policies are.
Thus, Democratic candidates can counter the claim by Republicans that they simply want to “cut and run” on the war in Iraq. However, by trying to demonstrate that they can take the nation in a new and better direction on the war and on anti-terrorism policy, the Democrats may have opened themselves up to criticism on issues that they were already winning in the minds of most voters.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Democratic candidates may find it more difficult and distracting to explain their party’s proposals than simply criticizing the president and the Republicans in Congress. But that is the price of trying to show voters that you can lead and govern effectively.
David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is the managing director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics in Lawrenceville, N.J.. He is a columnist for PoliticsNJ.com and New Jersey Lawyer, and a contributor to Campaigns and Elections magazine.
Rhodes Cook: I don’t know how much the administration’s renewed focus on the Iraq war and terrorism has changed the dynamic of these issues in this year’s midterm campaign. But the latter issue in particular plays to the Republicans’ strength.
It reminds one of the old football adage that if a play works, keep running it until the other team stops it. Republicans have been running the terrorism “play” since the midterm of 2002, and the Democrats haven’t stopped it yet.
Rhodes Cook, a former CQ senior politics writer who publishes The Rhodes Cook Letter, a bi-monthly political newsletter, and is author of America Votes, a biennial compilation of election data published by CQ Press.
Bruce E. Cain: At this point in the mid-term election, the question is not whether it will at least partially be a mandate on Iraq. It will.
What we do not know is how much of the national swing will be determined by national issues as opposed to local, campaign-specific factors such as incumbency, negative ads, candidate quality etc.
This gives the president two tactical choices. Lie low, stay out of the news, and let the Republican candidates fight on their own terms. Or charge forward, trying to change the frame of reference that voters have when they cast their ballots.
Since it is not in this president’s make-up to sit on the sidelines, it is no surprise that he is attempting to re-link the war in Iraq with the war on terror, and using the anniversary of 9/11 to remind voters of his bold, even if erring, leadership on terror.
The Republicans generally have been more aggressive than the Democrats about shaping the way that voters think. However, this is no easy matter: At some point, the facts have to connect up with the “spin” and national mood.
An atmosphere of palpable fear inclines voters to risk aversion, giving the benefit of the doubt to those who sound confident, strong and determined.
As time has progressed since 9/11, fear has lessened and the hard facts have not supported the president’s arguments. A flurry of speeches will not do the trick if voters have serious doubts about the president’s judgment.
This is the president’s last chance to help his party. If the polls next week indicate that his Iraq speeches and new proposals for handling terrorists have not pushed presidential approval ratings up significantly, President Bush will be doing his own marginal Republicans no favor by trying to repair his own image. His attempts to change the frame of the midterm debate have the byproduct of making national issues more salient.
Sometimes the best leadership is to get out of the way. But not all leaders can do that.
Bruce E. Cain is the director of the University of California Washington Center and longtime director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at University of California, Berkeley.
Charles S. Bullock III: The president continues to get his best ratings from the public on the issue of who is best suited to defend the nation from terrorism. While his recent speeches are designed to remind the public that terrorism remains a threat, the remembrance of the 9/11 attacks do even more to promote the image of President Bush the Defender.
However, it is other aspects of the president’s role on which Bush needs help. The 20 cent per gallon drop in gas prices may do more to help the president in the polls and to bolster GOP fortunes for the fall.
Charles S. Bullock III is the Richard Russell Professor of Political Science and Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Georgia.
Susan A. MacManus: Nothing disgusts average Americans more than the politicization of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
What drove this home to me was tuning in to watch the moment of silence memorial service this morning at Ground Zero, only to have a local television station break to air two strident attack ads from a Democrat and Republican running against each other for a state Senate seat here in Florida.
It reminded me of the blatant disconnect between the public and politicians when it comes to manners and common decency in times of grief. It had the uncomfortable feel of disrespect and poor taste, much like the disruption of a funeral. (And I love politics whereas most Americans do not.)
That said, the public has never stopped believing that America will be attacked again. Polls continue to show that Americans are even willing to give up some of their personal freedoms to make the nation safer.
The fight against terrorism still resonates with many citizens, but the politicization of the issue does not. Yet both political parties continue to use it as a political “weapon” against each other.
One ties the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq together; the other separates the two. One argues the country is safer today than five years ago; the other says “not true.”
What is true is that the public wants to feel safer, and longs for Democrats and Republicans alike to stand side-by-side, working together to solve problems, rather than treating serious issues as a political chess game, where each fights to position itself for victory.
Of course, that will never happen in the midst of a critical election cycle.
Two questions remain insofar as midterm elections. First, which view of the link between the war on terror and the war in Iraq is the most prevalent in each competitive congressional district? It is a question not easily answered with aggregate-level public opinion polls. Attitudes fluctuate depending on how the question is asked and what is happening at home and abroad. President Bush will quite likely get a bounce in the polls from the fifth anniversary of 9/11 … at least in the short term.
Second, are foreign policy concerns really that much bigger than pocketbook issues — jobs (and immigration’s impact on them), health insurance, affordable housing, and rising state and local taxes, especially property taxes?
So far, this election cycle is shaping up to be one that is more focused on Congress’ inability to tackle serious pocketbook-related issues that are stressing out the average taxpayer — and voter. Incumbents beware.
Susan A. MacManus is Distinguished University Professor of Government and International Affairs at University of South Florida and political analyst for NBC affiliate WFLA-TV in Tampa.
Dotty Lynch: I think they may have worked temporarily to change the topic from Iraq to terrorism. The anniversary of 9/11 is obviously a time of heightened attention.
The president and the GOP need to rebuild their image of the party that can keep people safe. An interesting indicator of their problem is in a CBS/New York Times poll released last week. In response to an open-ended question about what they like and dislike about President Bush, only 11 percent named his handling of terrorism as a plus, compared to 38 percent who volunteered Iraq as a negative.
I think that the public still separates Iraq from terrorism. While they give the president negative reviews on Iraq, they are mixed on terrorism.
His “non-political” speech on the evening of 9/11 will be a very high-profile attempt to regain his image on terrorism. The Bush administration has lost ground here, but their bigger problem is the anger toward the war in Iraq. His attempt at linkage will be assessed by a skeptical electorate.