Greenfield: The shifting political fallout from Iraq
By Jeff Greenfield
President Bush continues to defend the war in Iraq, but observers wonder what the impact will be on the 2006 elections.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described an ad run by the campaign of Saxby Chambliss during his successful 2002 Senate race against Max Cleland. The ad showed images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and then showed a picture of Cleland, while criticizing Cleland's position on the rules governing the newly created Department of Homeland Security. After Republican Sen. and Vietnam combat veteran Chuck Hagel voiced stong objections to the ad, it was revised to remove the images of bin Laden and Hussein.
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The question is simple: How will the present public unhappiness with Iraq translate politically?
The answer is also simple: We don't know; the midterm elections are 7 1/2 months away. This won't stop the speculation, of course, because ... well, because such speculation helps eat up all those hours that have to be filled with news, or in this case, news-like matter.
So let's ask a different question, one we actually can answer: What happened in the last two elections, and do those contests shed any light on what might happen in November? Answer: a definite "maybe."
In the 2002 midterms, Iraq was on slow simmer; what was front and center was the broader question of terrorism and how to fight it. The Taliban had been driven out of power in Afghanistan months earlier, and, at home, the big initiative was the creation of a Department of Homeland Security -- an idea the Bush administration originally had opposed, then embraced.
The debate was not about the department -- an unfortunate missed opportunity, given the hash that was made out of it and its shameful nonresponse to Katrina -- but, rather, how much job security should be given to unionized members of other government agencies that would be folded into the new department.
Democrats, with public employee unions as one of their key constituencies, fought hard to keep the old rules in place. Republicans took this opportunity to charge Democrats with playing politics. And this had important political consequences. In Georgia, for instance, Democratic Sen. Max Cleland -- a Vietnam combat veteran who had lost limbs while in service -- saw his opponent, Saxby Chambliss, run a TV ad that showed images of Bin Laden -- and Saddam Hussein -- followed by a picture of Cleland, implying that Cleland's views on homeland security were hurting the fight against terror. Cleland lost, which, along with losses of Democratic seats in Missouri and Minnesota, put the Senate back in Republican control.
In 2004, the public had already turned negative on Iraq, but Bush continued to receive high marks on the broader war on terror and on "strong leadership." This shaped the Republican message to its roots. "Steady leadership in a time of change," the slogan proclaimed, drawing a sharp contrast to the windsurfing "I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it" fecklessness of John Kerry.
Vice President Dick Cheney put it more bluntly: "Indecision kills."
What has happened since Bush's re-election is that the drumbeat of bad news out of Iraq -- along with the growing pessimism even among many who originally supported the war -- has driven down not just the president's ratings on Iraq, but also on his conduct of the broader war on terror, his ratings on honesty and above all, his ratings on competence, which also took a major hit due to the government's response to Katrina.
Not so coincidentally, the public -- at least now -- prefers Democrats in control of Congress by margins wide enough to suggest that they could capture one or both houses.
But "could" is the operative word. If there are significant, tangible victories on the terror front -- the capture of bin Laden most dramatically -- then the public might once again start seeing the president as an effective keeper of the public safety. Alternatively, as some conservatives have proposed, Republicans might try shifting the argument to social issues, trying to fire up the conservative base, much as "gay marriage" helped drive turnout for Bush in 2004.
When will we know? Not until the fall, I think. But keep watching the 357 polls that will be produced between now and then. Why? I'm glad you asked that question.
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