With Chaos In Iraq Bush Political Support Plummets

Published: Tue 30 Sep 2003 11:12 AM
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As Chaos Reigns in Iraq, Bush's Political Support Plummets at Home
Interview with John Nichols, Washington correspondent with The Nation magazine, conducted by Scott Harris
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As George W. Bush addressed the United Nations' General Assembly Sept. 23rd in an attempt to win support from skeptical governments around the world for what has become a chaotic and bloody U.S. occupation of Iraq, the president was quickly losing political support at home. The combination of an anemic economy and continued instability both in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed to a loss in confidence in the president as seen in recent public opinion polls.
Several polls conducted in late September found that President Bush's approval rating had sunk to around 50 percent, his lowest standing since he took office after the disputed election of 2000. Support among Americans for the Bush administration's war in Iraq has also seen a precipitous drop, from a high in the over 60 percent range to a new low of 50 percent.
Although many Democratic Party leaders had voted for a congressional resolution authorizing Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq, some Democrats now running for the White House are openly attacking the president for misrepresenting the truth in making his case for a U.S. war. The growing concern among Americans about the weak economic recovery, coupled with the loss of nearly 3 million jobs since the president was sworn into office, has emboldened many Democrats' critique of the Republican's foreign and domestic policies. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with John Nichols, Washington correspondent with The Nation magazine, who looks at the president's declining approval rating and the strength of the Democratic candidates now vying for Mr. Bush's job.
John Nichols: If we had a media in the United States that actually reported on politics everybody would know. But since we don't, we can reveal to your audience first and foremost that there's been a dramatic drop in the president's approval rating and in, frankly, the public perception of him.
If you'll remember in the heart of the Iraq war right as it started -- and I'm not talking about whatever we call this thing now, I happen to call it a war, the president doesn't -- but in the heart of the actual fighting, President Bush's approval ratings went up almost to his father's level. We're talking a very high 80s, low 90s. I mean, almost everybody was with him supposedly. He is now down to approval ratings of around 50 to 51 percent, 52 percent, 53 percent. So he's lost the better part of 40 points in a matter of three months; that is almost unheard of. Even Richard Nixon didn't drop as quickly as Bush has dropped.
Now I'm not going suggest to you for a second that he's going to keep going and go through the floor. I think this is a very politically divided country and there's a base of support for the president that is probably around 40 percent. But what's fascinating is the rapidity with which he has approached that base, and the reason for it is pretty clear. There has been, first off, a real turning of public sentiment as regards his handling of the Iraq war. For the first time, polling shows that more Americans feel he's blowing the war than doing it right. And that's the first time since the start of the war that that's happened.
Secondly, his personal credibility has gone through the floor. He was the president who came in and promised that he would restore honor and credibility to the White House. Today more than 60 percent of Americans believe that he has been deceptive in his public pronouncements about the war. And the percentage of Americans who rank him as "untrustworthy," is now over 50 percent.
So this is dramatic stuff, and it really is the sort of thing that -- people ought to stop for a second and take this all in -- it means that the approach to this president ought to be very different. It shouldn't ought to be that cautious sort of apologetic soft criticism that you've heard from so many congressional Democrats. This is a guy who's on the ropes, and the smart politicians, and I will count Howard Dean and a few others in that camp, have recognized that and they're going after him. Far from going out to some strange, dangerous place politically, they're actually very close to where the center of gravity is in our politics.
Between The Lines: It would be helpful if you would scan the announced candidates in the Democratic field vying for the nomination, and how they've variously handled the notion of attacking the president -- or holding their fire -- as some of the candidates had during the debate leading up to the war.
John Nichols: Those candidates who held their fire have really been harmed politically by it, because certainly that's not where the center of gravity is within the Democratic party. So as a result Rep. Dick Gephardt, the former House minority leader, did himself a tremendous amount of damage by organizing support for the Bush war resolution, and Gephardt was very badly harmed by that.
It turns out Sen. John Kerry was also very badly harmed. Kerry was much more skeptical about the war and much more critical. But he did cast a vote in favor of the resolution and that did him a lot of damage, especially in Iowa, which is a very anti-war state.
In addition, of course, Sens. John Edwards and Joe Lieberman who are actually quite supportive of the war to this day, particularly Lieberman, they virtually wrote themselves out of the contest.
Then you start to look at the folks who've been much more critical of Bush. There's no question that former Sen. Carol Mosley Brown and Rev. Al Sharpton have been very critical of the president. They haven't really mounted a particularly effective campaign so far and they frankly -- and this is a sad measure -- they haven't raised enough money.
Among the candidates who have been critical and have done a little more in mounting a serious campaign, certainly Senator Bob Graham of Florida has actually been very rough on the president. I don't think Graham has quite gelled it into an overall critique that works, but he's been very, very critical.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has probably had the most consistent critique of the president, not just on the war but on domestic economic issues, regulatory issues, environmental issues, across the board. Kucinich's critique is by far the most, frankly impressive from the standpoint of anyone who really is in opposition to Bush. Unfortunately for Kucinich, who's campaign has been very poorly covered by the media and also has been somewhat "dissed" by Democratic activists who for a variety of reasons don't see him as the right messenger, the right horse in this race.
That brings us around to Howard Dean. Dean is not the most impressive critic of Bush. He doesn't have as consistent a critique as Kucinich does, and frankly I don't even know that he has quite as much anger as Bob Graham does, or the humor that Al Sharpton brings. But Dean has combined a very steady, effective critique of the president with a lot of sophisticated campaigning and frankly a tremendous fundraising structure that has put him into a very good place. It's safe to say at this point that no one has surfed the anti-Bush sentiment quite so effectively as Howard Dean.
Between The Lines: Now, just shortly after retired General Wesley Clark entered the race he's on top of the heap, at least some initial polls put him there. But he's got a fairly ambiguous record on his support or opposition to the war in Iraq. He's been on both sides of the fence, so to speak, in interviews and what he's written.
John Nichols: Let's be clear about a couple of things. Number one, he's on the top of the heap, but he's not dramatically on top of the heap.
His public pronouncements about the war have been kind of surreally unfocused and going in a variety of different directions. In the first real interviews he did after announcing (his candidacy) he said, he would have voted for the resolution a year ago that authorized the war. And then obviously recognizing that he'd made a bad mistake, the next day he gave a speech in which he said he "would never, never have voted to go to war." But at the same time he said, he "would've voted to give the president leverage," which translated meant he would've voted for the resolution. So this guy's been all over the place on the issue and I think he actually ended up helping, rather than hurting, Howard Dean.
Read John Nichols' articles in the pages of The Nation or online at
Related links on our website at
- "Bush Administration Is Focus of Inquiry: CIA Agent's Identity Was Leaked to Media," Washington Post, Sept. 28, 2003
- "CIA Seeks Probe of White House", Exclusive | MSNBC and NBC News, Sept. 26, 2003
- "Bush Isolated as Speech to U.N. Falls Flat," The Guardian, Sept. 24, 2003
- "Bush makes little ground on Iraq: Even with Bush's lobbying, U.N. members don't step forward," Associated Press, Sept. 24, 2003
- "NBC Poll: Bush rating lowest ever: Just 49 percent approve of president's performance," MSNBC, Sept. 24, 2003
- "Americans Grow More Doubtful About Iraq War; Bush Approval Drops to Term Low," Gallup News Service, Sept. 23, 2003
- "Poll: Americans' Doubts Grow on Iraq," Associated Press, ZNet, Sept. 23, 2003
- "New poll shows 2 Democrats leading Bush," by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sept. 23, 2003
- "Bush's NY Poll Numbers Plummet," The Associated Press, Sept. 23, 2003
- "Blood in the Water: Led by Dean, the Democrats Attack," by John Nichols, The Nation, Sept. 11, 2003
Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on over 30 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines (, for the week ending Oct. 3, 2003. Between The Lines Q is compiled by Anna Manzo and Scott Harris.
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