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Tipping point (continued)

ABU GHRAIB is only the most startling in a series of weird and terrible events that have undermined public support for the war. From the videotaped beheading of American civilian Nicholas Berg to the assassination of Iraqi Governing Council president Izzedine Salim, from the US attack on what may or may not have been a wedding party to the raid at the home of former neocon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, who’s been accused of spying for Iran, the news out of Iraq in recent weeks has been confusing, contradictory, and unrelievedly awful.

The Bush administration is being abandoned literally left and right. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman — arguably the most important liberal supporter of the war — wrote a piece two weeks ago that began, "It is time to ask this question: Do we have any chance of succeeding at regime change in Iraq without regime change here at home?" (Friedman’s answer: hell, no!) Conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan, a strong supporter of the war, recently wrote on his weblog, AndrewSullivan.com, "The one anti-war argument that, in retrospect, I did not take seriously enough was a simple one. It was that this war was noble and defensible but that this administration was simply too incompetent and arrogant to carry it out effectively. I dismissed this as facile Bush-bashing at the time. I was wrong." Conservative pundit Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a bastion of the Eastern establishment, has called for Rumsfeld’s resignation, as has the conservative and largely pro-Bush magazine the Economist. And USA Today founder Al Neuharth, as plain-vanilla an opinion-monger as you’ll find, recently wrote a column for his old paper calling on Bush to pull a Lyndon Johnson — that is, to end his presidential campaign and let the Republicans nominate someone else. Neuharth called the war "the biggest military mess miscreated in the Oval Office and miscarried by the Pentagon in my 80-year lifetime."

This rebellion among the media elite, even those who are or were Bush supporters, is reflected in public opinion as well. According to the results of a CBS News poll released this past Monday, 41 percent approve of Bush’s job performance, whereas 52 percent disapprove — the worst numbers of his presidency. When asked about his handling of the war in Iraq, the ratio is 34 percent approve/61 percent disapprove. It’s no wonder that his reticent wife, Laura, and heretofore invisible twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, are starting to speak out on his behalf.

Some Democrats have been fretting over polls showing that Bush’s plunge has not been matched by a concomitant rise in John Kerry’s numbers. Indeed, new polls by Fox News, Newsweek, and other organizations show the two candidates essentially tied. But veteran pollster Andrew Kohut, in a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, argued that when an incumbent president is running for re-election, the polls at this stage of the campaign are all about him rather than his challenger — and that Bush’s numbers are pretty dismal. "This is typical: as an election approaches, voters first decide whether the incumbent deserves re-election; only later do they think about whether it is worth taking a chance on the challenger," Kohut wrote.

A recent survey by the Vanishing Voter Project, at (yes) Harvard’s Kennedy School, showed that 42 percent are paying "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of attention to the presidential campaign — a considerable increase over 2000, when just 15 percent were paying close attention at this point in the election cycle. Thomas Patterson, who directs the project, thinks turnout this November is likely to be six to eight percentage points higher than in 2000, and he cites three factors: the war, the economy, and Bush’s polarizing effect on the electorate, with Republicans liking him and Democrats detesting him to an unusual degree. Patterson told me that he expects the higher turnout to work to Kerry’s advantage, explaining, "We haven’t seen Democrats this mobilized in a long time."

A source familiar with the thinking of the Kerry campaign told me that, as a rule of thumb, an incumbent president will only do as well on Election Day as his approval rating. If that proves to be the case, and if Bush stays stuck at 41 percent, then Kerry will win easily, Ralph Nader or no Ralph Nader. But Democrats are sniping nevertheless. One critique is as follows: at a moment when Bush’s presidency is imploding over Iraq, Kerry is traveling around the country talking about public education and health care, and has all but disappeared from the newscasts and the headlines. Shouldn’t he be speaking out?

"If he were out pounding on Abu Ghraib and all that stuff, he would be accused of trying to make political capital out of these horrifying events overseas," replies the Kerry source. "From a political standpoint, you never murder a man who’s committing suicide. I think these are important issues, and at least at this point the less they are politicized, the better for the debate and the better for Kerry." But even if it’s smart politics to let Bush roast in a fire of his own making, it’s less than inspiring for Kerry to watch it burn rather than step in and show some leadership. Kerry’s current course underscores the notion that he’s campaigning merely as someone who’s not Bush, rather than as a potential president with his own ideas and agenda. In response to that, the source says that Kerry is determined not to speak "off the cuff" about Iraq, and that he may deliver a major address on the subject in the near future.

In a recent BostonPhoenix.com survey, 70 percent of respondents said that letting Bush twist wasn’t enough, and that Kerry has a responsibility to lay out his own plan. Perhaps Kerry finally realizes that. On Thursday, he is scheduled to begin delivering a series of speeches on national security, starting in Seattle. He will certainly have plenty to talk about.

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Issue Date: May 28 - June 3, 2004
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