Bush’s job approval is now at 37 percent and even lower for his handling of Iraq. And by 50 percent to 37 percent, the nation prefers Democrats in charge of Congress. Is the GOP headed for its own Little Big Horn?
So it would seem.
Eight months from now, the party will almost surely lose House and Senate seats, governors’ chairs and legislative seats in state capitals. The only questions are: How great will the losses be, and will the GOP lose control of one or both houses of Congress?
There is another mounting problem for Bush and his party: the national press.
"The Hun is always at your feet or at your throat," Churchill said. And our Huns, the national press, are at Bush’s throat. When he was riding high at the time of the fall of Baghdad, they happily rode behind him. Now, they have joined the posse to run him out of town.
Yet, there is a positive side to these dismal polls. For, as Dr. Johnson said, "When a man is about to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully." The GOP has to know it must move or die. It must find more hospitable terrain on which to fight, or it is going to lose power.
Instead of bewailing its fate or berating Bush for leading them into Sioux country, and demanding he fire his staff, the party had best counsel and conspire, if it hopes to cheat the hangman.
Nor is all darkness. A close look at that NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reveals that the Democratic Party commands less confidence than the GOP. Forty years of hammering "liberal Democrats" and the legacies of Carter and Clinton have left an indelible mark on our national consciousness.
Americans are unenthusiastic about either party, and therein lies the hope of the GOP. What it must do is move the discussion off of issues where the party is vulnerable — Katrina, the Dubai deal — onto issues where the GOP yet retains the high ground.
One would think the economy is such an issue. But there, the Bush approval rating is lower than 37 percent. Though growth is at 4.5 percent, the Dow is near all-time highs, inflation appears under control and unemployment is below 5 percent, the president gets failing grades.
This is either a problem of perception — the White House is failing to make its case, or the seeming hopelessness of Iraq permeates all — or an even graver problem. There may indeed be two Americas. And while the managerial class sees its portfolio growing smartly, the 80 percent of workers who manage no one and nothing is slipping behind.
That average Americans are spending every dollar they earn, saving nothing and borrowing to buy consumer goods, more and more of which are imported, suggests we have arrived at the split-level economy.
Thus, making the case that the Bush economy is a triumph may be a waste of time, if two-thirds of Americans start off in disbelief. As the Davos deal demonstrated, in politics, perceptions are realities.
This was Bush’s father’s mistake in 1992. When only 16 percent of Americans thought Bush I had handled the economy well, his political advisers told the president to keep talking about the economy. This fit like a glove into the Carville "It’s-the-economy-stupid" strategy.
Bush I and Clinton both talked about Clinton’s best issue, not Clinton’s biggest vulnerability, the social and cultural issues.
Bush and the GOP need to fix upon the issues on which they most deeply and passionately disagree with the Democrats — and where the public perceives true clarity — move onto that ground and fight it out there.
The first imperative is to define the Democratic Party and inform the country on what a Democratic victory will mean.
And, in this sense, the Feingold Resolution is a godsend. A true believer, Sen. Russ Feingold has introduced a motion to censure President Bush for allowing the National Security Agency to listen in on phone calls to and from Kandahar. Republicans should key off the Feingold Resolution to inform the country what a victory for the party of Clinton & Clinton, Pelosi and Reid, Sharpton and Dean, Kerry and Kennedy will mean.
And with John Conyers running the House judiciary committee, that victory would mean a rush to censure and perhaps impeach the president in wartime. It will mean no more justices like Roberts and Alito. It will mean the tax cuts will be repealed and taxes raised on dividends and capital gains, which will send the stock market into a tailspin.
As bad, then, as the polls were for Bush, they are like a doctor’s warning to lose weight, start exercising and stop smoking. We all know the alternative. For Bush, the polls mean one of three things. Either he changes his message, or he changes the issues, or he changes his policies — or he starts planning his library.