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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

It's the War, Stupid

Poll graphic

I wish this had come out when I wrote my post for Monday. Call this the second part of an unintentional two part post or just a revisitation of the same subject.

At the beginning of the week, I wrote about the White House and the media's campaign to paint a return of Iraq violence to 2006 levels as an "improvement". In that post, I pointed out that this only marks progress if you define that word as one step forward after a step back. The truth is that we're right where we were last year, before a spike in violence. We haven't really gotten anywhere.

Yesterday, I came across a late-breaking poll by Pew Research that's one of those good news - bad news things. The bad news is that Bush and the media's push to recast the war as a wonderful success story is working. The good news is that it isn't making any difference.

People are evenly split over how well the military effort in Iraq is going, with 48 percent saying it is going well and the same number saying it isn't, according to a survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. In February, shortly after Bush announced he would send additional troops to the country, only 30 percent said things were going well.

In only a matter of months, the Bush administration has managed to push the number of people who believe the occupation of Iraq is going well up 18% -- from a clear minority to a tie with those who believe things are bad (48% ). For warheads, the bad news is that the majority of people don't care whether it's going well or not. A bad idea is still a bad idea.

Even so, 54 percent say they favor bringing the troops home as soon as possible, virtually the same number as in February.

The public remains split over whether the U.S. will succeed or fail in Iraq, just as in February. A small majority feels the U.S. is losing ground in getting Iraqi leaders to work together.

To me, at least, that's an amazing stat. With a new 18% buying the line that Iraq is going well, it hasn't made a dent in skepticism over the war itself.

All polls really show us are how people answer specific questions. Most of the time, they don't tell us why they've answered the way they have. But it's not a huge leap of logic to conclude that people oppose the war in Iraq because it's wrong, not because they think it isn't going well. With nearly 20% of respondents changing their minds about the direction of the war (and, with a margin for error of +/-3%, it could be 20%), while 0% are changing their minds about whether or not it's a good idea, it's not much of a stretch to assume that opinions regarding the justice of the cause are pretty much cemented. People don't dislike the war because it's not going well, they dislike it because it seems pretty pointless.

Which is bad, bad news for Republicans -- especially in terms of presidential ambitions. When it comes to the war, all but one have hitched their wagons to Bush's star. Some, like John McCain, criticize Bush for not fighting it well, but that's not going to resonate with voters who think we shouldn't be fighting it at all.

GOPers can try and sidestep Iraq by talking about other issues -- and that might work in the primaries, with Republican voters much more likely to see the war as a good idea. But, in the general election, dodging the issue just isn't going to fly. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll shows that the war is the #1 issue among voters, with 26% calling it "the top priority for the federal government." And, more bad news for Republicans, the second slot goes to health care.

With GOP candidates running on their ability to fight the war in Iraq better than Bush, this poll puts them in a pickle. Do they switch their message to match the national tone -- and become "flip-floppers" -- or do they continue on an unpopular course in what is essentially a popularity contest? Either way, some change of tone is going to be required once they're out of the primaries and, no matter what it is, it's probably not going to make the people who voted for them in the primaries happy. It'll look like a bait-and-switch.

The Iraq war puts the GOP presidential hopefuls in a bad place and Bush is making sure the problem doesn't go away. As I posted yesterday, the president is busy doing whatever he can to make sure we remain in Iraq until time stops. Even GOP voters supportive of the war are likely to ask "how long?" and they're not going to like the answer -- probably decades.

Bush has done a great job of branding the Republican party as the Iraq Occupation Party. Unless the GOP is willing to shake that label, they'll probably find themselves out in the cold in November, with only a handful of nuts voting for them.


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