By Ben Goddard - 03/02/06 12:00 AM EST
It may be too early to say “stick a fork” in the Bush administration, but recent missteps by the White House, plummeting poll numbers and the scene of Republicans scurrying for the exits certainly suggest that President Bush’s team has lost control of the message, if not America’s entire political agenda.
In the six months since Hurricane Katrina first showed serious cracks in this administration, only the tape of national security has held it together. Now even that has come unstuck.
A Rasmussen Reports poll taken a few days ago shows Democrats in Congress are trusted on issues of national security more than the president. The margin is slight: 43 percent trust the Democrats and 41 percent the president. But even to have Democrats in the game is a startling turnaround.
In the 2002 midterm elections and the 2004 presidential election, Bush and the GOP won almost entirely on national security. Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove has suggested that should be the central message of the Republican battle to retain control of Congress this year. It appears that they’ve lost a lot of ammunition in the past few weeks.
There is little doubt that the Dubai Ports World deal is driving much of this loss of support for the president’s leadership in the war on terrorism. Depending on whose poll numbers you like, somewhere between 16 and 18 percent of Americans support the deal, yet the president continues to say he’s going to approve it, apparently without regard to the 45-day investigation suggested by the company.
The escalating violence in Iraq isn’t helping either. Only 39 percent of Americans think we’re winning the war on terrorism, and a mere 38 percent believe the United States is safer now than before the Sept. 11 attacks. That number, also from Rasmussen, is down five points since the Dubai story broke.
That is the crux of the White House problem. This once seemingly invulnerable operation has bungled every major news story of the past six months. No White House can predict that a major hurricane will hit or that its vice president will shoot someone on a hunting trip. What any competent administration should be able to do, however, is to respond quickly to these surprise events and manage them with intelligence and finesse.
I last wrote here about a “politically tone deaf” White House allowing Vice President Cheney to mismanage news of his hunting accident. It is beginning to look as though “tone deaf” was too kind an assessment of the White House’s performance. The handling of the Dubai story was just plain arrogant.
Republican political and corporate consultant Ken Feltman reported a few days ago on “Decision-Maker” focus groups he’d observed over the weekend. He cites “unease over the White House’s tendency toward secrecy and questions about competence.” A majority of those decisionmakers fault the president for mismanagement of the war in Iraq and believe the country is on the verge of civil war.
That is a view shared by a majority of Americans in most polls. Fewer than 30 percent think things will improve there in the next six months and a majority thinks things will only get worse. While they witness Iraq falling apart they also hear a president saying everything is fine and we are winning. Trying to spin that message has undermined faith in President Bush and his ability to lead the nation.
Thus, it seems the White House has managed to squander its one remaining advantage, national security. That has driven support for the president into the low 40s or mid-30s, depending on which poll you prefer.
No wonder that Republicans facing reelection are moving to stake out positions removed from the president. There is grave danger that disillusioned Republicans may sit out the 2006 election waiting for a visionary they believe has the ability to lead the nation in 2008. If so, that could give Democrats the opening they need to gain control of the Senate and possibly the House in 2006.
I’ve written here on many occasions that the Democrats just can’t seem to find a message that will carry them to victory in 2006. The elements have been in place for an upset on the scale of 1994 for some time now. What has been missing is the message and the messenger.
Ironically, it seems this White House is working hard on the message that will win for Democrats, and recently it seems like the president is determined to be the messenger who will deliver it for them.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.