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History Ambushes the Bush Administration

On the domestic and foreign fronts -- from triumph to near collapse in less than five years.

| Mon Apr. 17, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

[Note for readers: This is the stand-alone conclusion to a two-part dispatch, the first of which was published two weeks ago.]

You can count on one thing. All over Washington, Republicans are at least as capable as I am of watching and interpreting the polling version of the smash-up of the Bush administration. With each new poll, the numbers creep lower yet. Presidential approval in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll dropped another 3% in the last month and now sits at 38%, while disapproval of the President continues to strengthen -- 47% of Americans now "strongly disapprove" of the President's handling of the presidency, only 20% "strongly approve." (62%, by the way, disapprove of the President's handling of the war in Iraq.)

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Behind these figures lurk worse ones. When asked, for instance, whether they would vote for a generic Democrat or Republican in the upcoming midterm elections, those polled chose the generic Democrat by a startling 55-40%, the largest such gap yet. In addition, Democrats have now become the default party Americans "trust" almost across the board on issues, even in this poll edging the Republicans out by a single percentage point on the handling of terrorism.

Commenting on a recent Ipsos-AP poll showing Democrats and Republicans in a tie on the question, "Who do you trust to do a better job of protecting the country," GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said: "These numbers are scary. We've lost every advantage we've ever had. The good news is Democrats don't have much of a plan. The bad news is they may not need one." Surprisingly, despite the way Democrats have shied off the subject, a near-majority (45%) of those polled were also in favor of some kind of Feingold-like censure of the President for listening in on citizens without prior court approval.

The words connected to almost any new poll these days are "hit a new low." Other recent new lows were reached by that AP-Ipsos poll and by a Fox News poll where presidential approval was at 36%. Or take a recent state poll in California, where Bush has admittedly never been a popular figure. Still, a 32% approval rating? Or check out the trajectory of Bush polling approval numbers from September 11, 2001 to today. Despite various bumps and plateaus -- including a conveniently engineered, Karl Rovian bump just before election 2004 -- it's been a slow, ever-downward path that, in early 2005, dipped decisively under 50%; by the end of 2004 had crossed the 40% threshold; and is, at present, in the mid-30% range.

There's no reason to believe that the bottom has been reached. After all, these polls precede the recent disastrous flap over the Patrick Fitzgerald federal court filing on I. Lewis Libby and the various "declassification" admissions of the President and Vice-President (of which there is guaranteed to be more to come); these figures arrived before the (retired) generals revolt against Donald Rumsfeld, which is still spreading and to which the President's staunch defense can only contribute fuel ("Secretary Rumsfeld's energetic and steady leadership is exactly what is needed at this critical period. He has my full support and deepest appreciation."); these figures precede by a couple of months the beginning of the next hurricane season along the never-reconstructed Gulf Coast; they precede any indictment of Karl Rove or of other Bush administration figures in the Plame case, and further even more contorted presidential (and vice- presidential) fall-back positions in the same case; these polls come before the predictable happens in Iraq and the sectarian war there worsens while the American position weakens as well as before the Iranian situation really kicks in; they arrive before summer gas prices head above $3 a gallon aiming for the stratosphere; before any real economic bad news comes down the pike; before other as yet unknown crises hit that the Bush administration predictably just won't be able to get its collective head or its waning governmental powers around.

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