The lead photo today on page one of The New York Times says it all: Condoleezza Rice looking weary, her eyelids at low mast, the palm of her left hand pressed against her brow, seemingly in dire need of a couple extra-strength Advils. What better visual symbol of a Bush administration overmatched by international events -- precisely at a time (the runup to the '06 congressional elections) when President Bush badly needs to rack up some diplomatic or military triumphs?
Right now, there seem to be two schools of thought about whether the turmoil abroad -- Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Iran, North Korea -- will further damage Bush's domestic standing and thus hurt his Capitol Hill followers who are running for re-election. The optimistic GOP scenario posits that Bush and the Republicans can actually benefit because voters are often wary of switching horses (in this case, handing congressional power to the Democrats) in midstream when the international waters are especially turbulent.
As Republican consultant Lance Tarrance told The Washington Post today, these crises give Bush an opportunity "to demonstrate presidential leadership," and the latest Times-CBS poll does show strong plurality approval for the way Bush is responding to the Israel-Hezbollah hostitilies. In other words, the optimistic GOP scenario relies heavily on the traditional rally-round-the-commander-in-chief behavioral model, coupled with fresh Wall Street Journal-NBC polling evidence that, for all the president's woes, the Democrats still can't seem to inspire public confidence (32 percent favorably, 39 percent unfavorable).
The countervailing scenario, however, is at least equally persuasive. Bush has apparently taxed the public's patience to the point where he has very little room to manuever. The two new polls cited above report that most Americans are witheringly critial of Bush's performance in Iraq, and recognize that at this point he garners little respect around the world. And he inspires little confidence at home, as evidenced by the pessimism measured in the Times-CBS survey: only 35 percent approve of the way Bush is generally handling foreign policy, and 61 percent believe that the Israel-Hezbollah fighting is likely to trigger a larger regional war (a finding which suggests that few Americans expect The Decider to be decisively effective in this crisis).
Worse yet, even prominent conservatives are now openly pessimistic about Bush's stewardship in Iraq; consider this argument, voiced yesterday: "Hands up, everybody who believes that the 'hundreds' of troops that the Pentagon plans to move from the rest of Iraq into Baghdad will suffice to secure the capital against the sectarian militias now waging war upon the civilian populations of the city. Anybody? No, I didn't think so....The present plan -- 'as the Iraqis stand up, we stand down' -- has not worked to date, as the president admitted (Tuesday), and there seems little reason to hope it will work better over the next months than it has in the recent past."
If a Democrat had uttered those words, he or she would be labeled as "defeatist" or worse by Bush's defenders. But those are the words of David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who helped coin the phrase axis of evil. If someone like Frum is so gloomy, it's not hard to imagine that the average voter is any less. Especially given the fact that (as the Times-CBS poll reports) a whopping 56 percent of Americans now support a withdrawal timetable, which puts public sentiment at odds with the Bush team and far ahead of the Washington Democratic establishment.
And there's also a broader context that arguably bodes ill for Bush and his congressional enablers on election day: The current crises in the Middle East -- particularly the fact that America is now too bogged down in the Iraqi religious (civil) war to respond effectively -- provides stark evidence that Bush and the neoconservatives' grand design for a broadly democratic Middle East appears to be going up in flames.
The original plan was to topple the Iraqi evil-doer in a cakewalk, install peace and democracy with minimal troops, and then watch the flowers bloom in the region's heretofore inhospitable soil. This ambitious Pax Americana was widely applauded, and a lot of us in the press occasionally got suckered by it (including me, here), prior to the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections this past January.
Most Americans aren't foreign policy experts, and don't live their lives debating neoconservative theory, but they do know instinctively when there's a mess that their president seems ill-positioned to clean up, and they do seem to know when Congress seems inattentive to what's really important (especially since the GOP lawmakers have spent their time lately passing flag-waving bills, such as the one designed to keep the word "God" in the Pledge of Allegiance). Perhaps this is why conservative columnist Robert Novak is now reporting that one of his top GOP congressional sources, somebody "who publicly exudes optimism," is privately predicting "a loss of 30 House seats," and thus a Democratic takeover.
And conservative strategist Kellyanne Conway also sees trouble ahead for the GOP; as she writes today, "All of the conventional (polling) indices...portend disaster for the party in power, in this case, the GOP. The right direction/wrong track figures, congressional and presidential approval ratings, and confidence measures, are all 'upside-down,' which is pollster parlance for crappy."
Nevertheless, as one Democrat said to me the other day, after itemizing Bush's woes, "How do you think we'll screw this one up?" I'll consider that question further tomorrow.