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Presidents base is crumbling

The sounds you are hearing, the sights you are seeing, are the unmistakable signs of George Bush’s base crumbling. Disintegrating alongside is the notion that base politics is sufficient and the view that wedge issues or crafty language trump performance. While the effects may not be felt as quickly as we like, reality counts. Public opinion rewards success and punishes failure.

The sounds you are hearing, the sights you are seeing, are the unmistakable signs of George Bush’s base crumbling. Disintegrating alongside is the notion that base politics is sufficient and the view that wedge issues or crafty language trump performance. While the effects may not be felt as quickly as we like, reality counts. Public opinion rewards success and punishes failure.

November’s results offered Republicans vivid evidence that they do not want to spend two more years lashed to Bush’s Iraq policy. While relatively few Americans are following news about the Iraq Study Group (just 18 percent “very closely”), its report compounded the President’s problem. Family retainer Jim Baker came not to rescue Bush, as he had in Florida in 2000, but rather to certify his failure. The president’s strongest supporters and closest political friends followed on, denouncing his Iraq policy as a disaster and deriding his claims of success as foolish.

The response from Republican elected officials was swift and inevitable. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) limited his most important liability. Instead of running for reelection in a blue, anti-war state, as a pro-war Republican, he suddenly recanted three years of lockstep support for Bush’s Iraq policy. No doubt, as he claimed, the 10 American casualties that morning precipitated a change of heart that 2,900 prior American deaths had failed to elicit — but politics may have entered the equation, somewhere.

Defecting Republican elites opened the floodgates, legitimating grave doubts among the rank and file. For years, this president enjoyed over 90 percent approval from Republican voters and nearly 100 percent obedience from GOP legislators. No longer.

The latest poll data is replete with evidence of the crumbling Republican base. Four polls conducted after the release of the Baker Commission Report show an average approval rating for Bush of just 32 percent. That is a mere 8 points higher than approval of Richard Nixon the day he helicoptered off to San Clemente rather than face certain impeachment. Republican approval of Bush’s performance has fallen 20 points.

Support for Bush’s Iraq policy collapsed as well. Just 21 percent in the CBS poll approve of the way he is handling the situation, with GOP partisans splitting evenly. The number who think things in Iraq are going badly increased by almost 20 points in the last year. Fewer than half of Republicans in the Newsweek poll accept the President’s contention that we are making progress in Iraq.

Voters are even revisiting the original decision. From the end of the first Gulf War through the beginning of this one, a majority of Americans wanted to use military force against Saddam Hussein. Just a year ago, voters divided evenly on whether going to war against Iraq was the right thing. Today, just 39 percent maintain the war was right, while 55 percent believe we should have stayed out. More now say Iraq was a mistake than described Vietnam that way in 1973.

At that time, a Republican president was extricating our troops from a civil war, hardly the course plotted by this administration. But a mere 4 percent of Americans overall, and just 7 percent of Republicans, want to stay Bush’s course in Iraq. Nearly six in 10 Americans, including a third of Republicans, want to reduce the number of U.S. troops there — a 9-point increase overall in just two months. Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) proposal to send more troops to Iraq garners support from just 18 percent.

Having seen the electoral results of the Bush policy, congressional Republicans are abandoning the president. Grassroots Republicans, their perceptions of failure validated by the “experts,” are joining them. Despite Bush’s care and feeding of the Republican base, it is abandoning him. The president stands alone, seemingly at two with reality.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.