First, the bad news.
I probably overestimated the political potency of President Bush’s speech from New Orleans last week. What marginal support the President gained from centrists has been overwhelmed in part by support he’s lost from conservatives, who are understandably worried about the massive increase in spending. According to Rasmussen Reports, only 43% of self-identified conservatives support a spending spree along the Gulf Coast, while 37% are opposed. (Rasmussen found 50% support for the proposal overall.) “This is especially striking given how supportive the President’s base has remained throughout his Administration,” says Rasmussen. As of yesterday, Rasmussen showed 47% job approval for the President and 52% disapproval. Because of the way Rasmussen weights by party identification, this is several points higher than what other polls are showing; the Ipsos and Gallup polls both show Bush’s job approval rating at 40% and his disapproval rating in the high 50s. With numbers like this (and a polling-obsessed Senate), there’s a serious danger that the President will be too weak to get a strong conservative through the next Supreme Court nomination process.
Now, the good news. For the first time in a long time, fiscal restraint is both good policy and good politics. To turn his approval rating numbers around, Bush needs to shore up restless conservatives, and get behind — or better yet, in front of — calls for spending cuts to offset hurricane reconstruction. On Wednesday Rep. Mike Pence (R-Indiana) and the Republican Study Committee — a caucus of more than 100 members of the House — unveiled “Operation Offset,” a 23-page list of proposed cuts that could save over $100 billion in the 2006 fiscal year alone.
The blogosphere is getting in on the act, too; Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.com and “N.Z. Bear” of TruthLaidBear.com have launched Porkbusters. Bloggers are identifying wasteful spending projects in their respective states or congressional districts and talking to their senators and representatives about relinquishing that money; TruthLaidBear.com has pages set up to collect data on the pork and Congressional responses. “The result should be a pretty good resource of dubious spending, and Congressional comments thereon, for review by blogs, members of the media, etc.,” writes Reynolds. N.Z. Bear calls it “a fiscal broken windows policy”; as with Giuliani-style policing, these bloggers want to keep on top of the small problems to help fix the big ones.
Bush has made some rhetorical glances toward spending cuts; last Friday, when he ruled out a tax increase to pay for post-hurricane reconstruction, he spoke of “cutting unnecessary spending.” But if he and his party are going to get credit for turning toward fiscal discipline, he needs to be more visible on this issue.
The other piece of good news is that events in Iraq in the next few months are likely to help the President by making the intervention seem more worthwhile. The Iraqis will vote on the constitution in October and, if that passes, they’ll vote for a new government in December. The trial of Saddam Hussein will also, probably, start in October. Najaf has already been turned over to Iraqi security forces, and as this happens in other cities it might get more attention than a Washington Post write-up on page A20. Bush can use those as news hooks for primetime war speeches, along the lines of the successful appearance he made at Fort Bragg in June.
Rallying the country during wartime, in fact, also makes good policy as well as good politics.
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