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June 23, 2006
Barone: Bush Gets Stronger

Has George Bush gained strength through the debate over the war policy in Iraq? Michael Barone writes that the Democrats have profited from bad news in Iraq over the past few months, but now that the war effort has seen a string of victories, Bush can play Republican unity into recovering his political strength. However, Barone rightly surmises that Bush's bad fortunes may have been overplayed from the start:

Things are looking up for George W. Bush and maybe for his party. The Democrats failed to win the special election in the 50th Congressional District of California June 6. Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed on June 7. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said he would not seek an indictment of chief Bush adviser Karl Rove on June 12. Bush made a dazzling surprise trip to Baghdad on June 13 and followed up with a confident press conference the next day. The Senate voted 93 to 6 on June 15 and the House 256 to 153 on June 16 against U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

A turning point in the president's political fortunes? Maybe. But I'm inclined to think that Bush and the Republicans were not in quite as much trouble as most in the press thought, and I'm not sure these developments will produce an immediate surge in Bush's poll ratings. Why? ...

Senate and House Republicans last week staged debates over whether to pull out of Iraq now or stay on. Democrats complained that these were meaningless debates aimed (as they said the debates on the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages were) at dividing voters. But on these issues it is the Democrats--their officeholders and their voters--who are divided, while the Republicans, with a few exceptions, are all on one side. The Democrats have profited politically from bad news from Iraq. Good news puts things in a different light and raises the question of just what Democrats would do if in power. For the moment they are, as ranking House Armed Services Democrat Ike Skelton said, "absolutely" divided. That's not a good posture from which to face the voters.

Barone touches on something that has crossed my mind over the last few months. Bush won his elections by solidifying his base and pointing out the increasingly extreme views of his opponents. The center often leaned towards Bush, but his strategy has been to turn out the base in large numbers. The reason why Bush has lost ground comes from the disaffection of his base over issues like immigration and the Dubai ports deal, not Iraq, and he knows it. The conservative base has had reason to question his political competence over the past year, something that Bush didn't give them in the first term.

Support from his base on Iraq remains solid, and that's what may push his numbers back up after the past two weeks of debate on his policy. Conservatives openly talked about protest boycotts in November and possible schism for a third-party effort. One will note the relative lack of such discussion since the Democrats pushed for two different cut-and-run options in Congress. Not only did the Democrats demonstrate Barone's contention that they remain divided and incoherent on national security, but it showed conservative critics of George Bush what could happen to the war effort if the Democrats take the House and/or the Senate in the fall.

The Democrats damaged themselves significantly with their insistence on a withdrawal from Iraq in the same month that we have rolled up large swaths of the foreign insurgency there. In fact, the amendments offered epitomized snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq and figuratively did the same thing to their electoral standing with the public. Even before this, their polling numbers had begun to drop in Congressional calculations, and now we should see a precipitous drop that calls into question whether they can gain anything at all in November, let alone take over the majority.

Will that translate to bigger approval numbers for Bush? Probably not more than 45% in Rasmussen calculations, but he's not running for re-election. Bush can afford to act on principle rather than electoral calculations -- in fact, it's supposedly one of the benefits of the term limits on the Presidency. As long as his base continues to see him acting on principle and as long as the Democrats continue to offer nothing but retreat and extremism, the Republicans and the President will do fine in November.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 23, 2006 11:23 AM

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Tracked on June 25, 2006 11:09 AM


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