Turning on the War

Findings and trends from the latest polling data

| Thu Dec. 8, 2005 4:00 AM EST
 Article created by The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress.

Will Predicting Victory in Iraq Rally the Public Behind Bush?

On November 30, Bush gave a speech at the Naval Academy in which, according to the Washington Post:

He used the word victory 15 times. . . ; "Plan for Victory" signs crowded the podium he spoke on; and the word heavily peppered the accompanying 35-page National Security Council document titled, "Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq."

Apparently, it's no accident that Bush's public relations strategy is so victory-centric. The Washington Post article goes on to say:

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[The document's] relentless focus on the theme of victory strongly reflected a new voice in the administration: Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who joined the N.S.C. staff as a special adviser in June and has closely studied public opinion on the war.

Despite the president's oft-stated aversion to polls, Dr. Feaver was recruited after he and Duke colleagues presented the administration with an analysis of polls about the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004. They concluded that Americans would support a war with mounting casualties on one condition: that they believed it would ultimately succeed.

How plausible is all this? Unlikely, not to say delusional, if not "Feaver-ish," as public opinion expert John Mueller waggishly observed in the same Washington Post article. Consider these data from the latest Qunnipiac University poll:

1. By 54 percent to 41 percent, voters say the war with Iraq was the wrong thing for the United States to do, not the right thing.

2. Forty percent of the public supports immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Another 4 percent support withdrawal within six months and another 10 percent within a year. So 54 percent support withdrawing troops within a year, compared to 39 percent who support staying longer or setting no timetable. Note that sentiment for immediate withdrawal includes 55 percent of Hispanics and 61 percent of independents.

3. By 49 percent to 46 percent, voters believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public in making the case for the Iraq war.

4. By 51 percent to 47 percent, voters now believe Bush does not have strong leadership qualities and, by 50 percent to 45 percent, they now believe that Bush is not honest and trustworthy.

The likelihood that views this negative will be turned around by stridently insisting the United States will somehow achieve victory in Iraq seems slight indeed. As Jonathan Rauch remarked in a Sunday article in the Washington Post:

[T]he evolving structure of public opinion about Iraq is making the current war effort there unsustainable. . . . What emerges [from the public opinion data] is not fleeting disenchantment, but a coherent and hard-nosed critique of Bush's strategy. The administration's fundamental problem is not that the public is discouraged by U.S. casualties, or that news from Iraq has been bad, or that the president needs to give better speeches. The problem is that many Americans see no stakes in Iraq sufficient to justify the military effort and diplomatic cost.

In other words, the public has concluded that the war is a bad idea and was a mistake to begin with (as the Qunnipiac University poll cited above and many other polls have found). And, politically, that is very, very consequential. But don't take my word for it. Here are the words of the good Dr. Feaver and a colleague in their paper, "Iraq the Vote: Retrospective and Prospective Foreign Policy Judgments, Candidate Choice, and Casualty Tolerance."

We show that prospective judgments of the likelihood of success in Iraq and retrospective judgments of whether the war in Iraq was right are significant determinants of both vote choice and casualty tolerance. The prospective judgment of success is key in predicting casualty tolerance, while retrospective judgment of whether the war was right takes precedence in determining vote choice. [emphasis added]

In plain English, that means that, leaving aside the question of supporting the ongoing war effort, if people conclude the war was wrong and a bad idea to begin with, they want to vote against the party behind the war. What are people concluding right now? That the war was wrong and a bad idea. Therefore, according to their own public opinion guru, the idea that the Bush administration and the GOP can pull their political chestnuts out of the fire by insisting on the imminence of victory in Iraq is just plain wrong. The political corner has already been turned—and it's been turned against Bush and his party. No amount of victory-happy rhetoric, now or in the future, is likely to reverse that dynamic.


Why Can't the Public Lose Its Economic Pessimism?

Why indeed? According to the president, things are really quite jolly with the economy. He recently cited:

.....job gains, falling gasoline prices, rising consumer confidence, increasing business investment, relatively low unemployment and a strong housing market as evidence that the overall economy "is in good shape."

"Our economic horizon is as bright as it's been in a long time," he said.

And it is true that the most recent jobs report (215,000 additional jobs in November) and the most recent quarterly GDP growth rate (4.3 percent in the third quarter of this year) are pretty good figures. So why aren't those pesky voters singing Hosannas to the brilliant economic policies of the Bush administration? Why are they instead still rating the economy in the latest Gallup poll as only fair or poor (63 percent) and still taking the pessimistic view that the economy is getting worse (58 percent), rather than better (36 percent)?

It's possible that they've just been duped by the media. Or that they've transferred their discontent with the Iraq debacle onto the economy. But I prefer a different, simpler explanation: things just aren't that good for the average American.

That's Paul Krugman's point in his excellent December 5 column:

[T]he main explanation for economic discontent is that it's hard to convince people that the economy is booming when they themselves have yet to see any benefits from the supposed boom. Over the last few years G.D.P. growth has been reasonably good, and corporate profits have soared. But that growth has failed to trickle down to most Americans. . .

Even after adjusting for inflation, profits have risen more than 50 percent since the last quarter of 2001. But real wage and salary income is up less than 7 percent.

There are some wealthy Americans who derive a large share of their income from dividends and capital gains on stocks, and therefore benefit more or less directly from soaring profits. But these people constitute a small minority. For everyone else the sluggish growth in wages is the real story. And much of the wage and salary growth that did take place happened at the high end, in the form of rising payments to executives and other elite employees. Average hourly earnings of nonsupervisory workers, adjusted for inflation, are lower now than when the recovery began.

So there you have it. Americans don't feel good about the economy because it hasn't been good for them. Never mind the G.D.P. numbers: most people are falling behind.

And if that's true—and I think it is—Bush's insistence on a bright economic horizon is likely to strike most Americans as simply out of touch, thereby adding to, not mitigating, his current political problems.

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