Increasingly, the conventional wisdom among the press is that President Bush's re-election prospects are in trouble.
After what can only be described as a terrible summer (thus far) for the Bush administration, CNN crowed that "in the latest TIME/CNN poll, Bush's job approval rating has dropped to 55%, where it stood before 9/11." Dan Balz of the Washington Post remarked that Bush's optimism "belied the challenges that have confronted his administration in the past month and the political toll they have begun to take on his presidency." Bill O'Reilly jumped on the bandwagon, warning that "just 48 percent would vote for Mr. Bush today, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll." This led the New York Times to confidently editorialize that the reasons for the Iraq invasion "look increasingly suspect," and on the economy "Mr. Bush mimics his father's out-of-touch performance of 1992."
Undoubtedly June and July were not kind to the Bushies. From Uraniumgate, to soldiers dying in Iraq, to a mangled prescription drug benefit for Medicare, to revised deficit numbers, the summer would have been a total loss were Uday and Qusay not now fertilizing daffodils, or whatever they grow in the Iraqi desert. Surely the Bush administration bears some of the blame: In the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes makes a pretty persuasive case that the administration bungled the Unraniumgate matter, and it also appears that the administration prepared for the wrong problems in a post-war Iraq. Further, Bush's signaling that he would sign any Medicare drug bill only encouraged the Congressional big-spenders to dig in their heels.
This has caused the Democrats to smell blood in the water. Everyone from Bob Graham to Joe Biden has piled on, and Howard Dean has ratcheted up his anti-Bush rhetoric to rising approval among the party faithful. It looks so good that some are even speculating that Al Gore may enter the race. Meanwhile, Republicans are getting nervous. According to Ron Fourier of the Associated Press, "For the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, rank-and-file Republicans say they are worried about President Bush's re-election chances based on the feeble economy, the rising death toll in Iraq and questions about his credibility."
Here's some advice: Democrats, get your nostrils checked. Republicans, take a chill pill. As for the press, well, who knows what would help them? The fact of the matter is that those pressing the Bush-is-in-trouble line are hyping a minor drop in the polls, ignoring good news, and have no vision of the not-too-distant future.
First off, the poll O'Reilly referred to, which has Bush beating a generic Democrat 48-40%, is largely meaningless. In such polls respondents often project their hopes and desires for an ideal candidate onto the generic candidate. What matters is how Bush matches up against actual candidates. Among all the routinely mentioned candidates, he fares worst against Hillary Clinton, and he still beats her 50-41%. Howard Dean? Bush's worst showing against him is 53-38%.
While Bush's job approval ratings have dropped lately, most polls still show an approval rating in the mid to high 50s. What's more instructive is to compare Bush's ratings among the polls before and after the run of bad news. Of the seven polls tracked on Polling Report, Bush had an average approval rating in late May and early June of 62%; by late July it was 56%. In other words, after nearly two months of non-stop bad press, the approval ratings dropped by only 6 points. Most politicians probably wish their approval ratings would drop so far after such lousy media coverage.
Lost in the din are various snippets of good news. First, the economy appears poised for a strong recovery. Second quarter GDP growth was better than expected, and many companies are reporting much better than expected profits. The jobs picture is still dark, but employment is always a lagging indicator. And if companies continue to post profits, they will start hiring sooner rather than later. Also lost in the din is that coalition soldiers are conducting very successful operations against the Ba'athists running a guerrilla war in Iraq. As these continue, the Iraqi situation will improve and our soldiers will be safer. Eventually, the public will notice.
Finally, two major developments have a better than even chance of occurring before the year is out: the capture of Saddam Hussein and the discovery of evidence of weapons of mass destruction. If the death of Uday and Qusay was big news, the taking down of Saddam will be enormous, giving President Bush a big boost in the polls. Democrats should be worried, for our troops are closing in. On the WMD front, David Kay, who is heading the search, recently said that "solid evidence is being produced," on Hussein's weapons program. From the beginning Democrats jumped the gun on the inability to find WMDs in Iraq. Hussein and his stooges had 10 years of practice on hiding WMDs; it was unreasonable to expect that our forces would discover them right away. As the search unfolds, we will likely discover evidence of WMDs. When we do, not only will Bush get a big boost in the polls, his Democratic and liberal critics will look foolish.
Both the Democrats' glee and the Republicans' nervousness are premature. After two months of bad news a clear majority of Americans still approves of the job our President is doing. Worse for the Democrats, the worst for Bush is likely past.
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