Friday, September 01, 2006

The new Bush plan for winning over the public: what would Dale Carnegie say?

We’ll keep it short here today, not for TGIF or holiday reasons, but because I’m on assignment for the paper. So let’s focus, almost exclusively, on the latest news concerning the Iraq war and public opinion.

Concerning President Bush’s speech yesterday to the American Legion, and similar addresses earlier this week by Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, it is difficult to see how their arguments will achieve the result that they seek -- namely, a resurgence of public support for the war, hopefully in time for the November congressional elections.

Here is their fundamental challenge:

The swing groups in the electorate are independents and moderates. Every poll reports that most of those folks have long soured on the war; for instance, the latest CBS-New York Times survey shows that 67 percent give Bush a thumbs-down verdict on the war. The Fox News pollsters report that independents in ‘06 now favor Democratic congressional candidates over GOP candidates by a margin of 40 percent to 16 percent. And USA Today, citing its own new polling, reports today that independent voters are swinging toward Democratic senatorial candidates in five states.

Given such sentiments, can the Bush team feasibly expect to win over independents by giving speeches which imply that anyone with serious doubts about this war is merely an appeaser of fascism? To borrow a phrase from Dale Carnegie, is this a politically effective way “to win friends and influence people?”

In the New York Times report this morning on Bush’s speech, the most important comment is attributed to a senior Republican Senate aide: “For (Bush) to move the numbers in a way that benefits congressional Republicans, he needs to reach out to moderates, and it’s difficult to do that when his surrogates are contradicting him and calling opponents of his policy appeasers.”

On one point, this aide is merely being diplomatic: Surrogates Cheney and Rumsfeld were hardly “contradicting” Bush by using the word appeasement. Given the track record of White House rhetorical coordination, it’s more likely that the decision was made to have the surrogates use the tougher language while the boss supposedly hewed to the higher plane.

But again, in terms of political effectiveness, it’s hard to see how Bush can sway public opinion his way by arguing, as he did yesterday, that “if we give up the fight in the streets of Baghdad, we will face the terrorists in the streets of our own cities.” He is contending that winning in Iraq will make us safer at home -- but polls already show that most Americans now believe the war is already making us LESS safe at home.

The latest poll by Associated Press-Ipsos Public Affairs reports that, by a margin of 60 to 31 percent, most Americans now conclude that there will be more terrorism stateside because the U.S. invaded Iraq. Moreover, that same poll reports that, by a margin of 47 to 40 percent, Americans now favor the Democrats as the party that would do the better job of protecting this country. And what’s most noteworthy about that poll is the makeup of those who were surveyed: 70 percent described themselves as either moderate or conservative.

Yet perhaps these speeches aren’t even designed to win back the independents (although the endangered moderate GOP congressmen in Northeast districts would be grateful if that goal was achieved). Maybe these speeches are aimed at merely shoring up the conservative base. Because unless those voters are stoked to turn out in great numbers, the GOP is probably doomed in the midterm elections.


Speaking of polls, the survey team at Fox News, hewing no doubt to the network credo about being “fair and balanced,” managed to ask a question that reads as if it was crafted by GOP chairman Ken Mehlman at national party headquarters.

Question #7: “If Democrats win control of Congress in the midterm election, do you think it is more likely that they will spend the next two years investigating and trying to impeach President Bush, or coming up with new ideas to move the country forward?”

But the respondents didn’t take the bait. Forty-seven percent said the Democrats would stress new ideas, while only 30 percent said they’d hound the president. And that spread was more pronounced among swing-voting independents: 48 to 23 percent.


Missed opportunity of the week:

In his NBC interview with Brian Williams the other day, Bush said that he recently read “three Shakespeares.”

Williams whiffed by not asking a follow-up question. For instance,“Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter verse -- true or false?”

Just kidding. Seriously, here was the obvious follow-up: “Which ones, Mr. President? Tell us what they were about, and what themes or lessons you derived from reading them."


Here's a political junkie tip for a rainy holiday weekend: Rick Santorum and Bob Casey, debating this Sunday on Meet the Press. The latest USA Today poll has incumbent Santorum trailing by 18 points among likely voters. If that's even remotely accurate, how will Santorum try to shift the dynamic? Check back here for a critique on Sunday afternoon.