The Candidates
Unpopular, uneasy and unknown
By Tim Hibbetts

Much has been made of the near abysmal approval ratings of President George Bush and the concomitant risk this will expose Republican candidates to at all levels in next year’s elections. Let’s be very clear about what is going on here: George Bush has run some of the lowest approval ratings for any president for the longest sustained period of time since regular presidential approval polling began 70 years ago.

President Bush has spent all but about three weeks of the last 14 months under 40 percent approval, and it has been two years since I have seen any public opinion survey measure his approval rating at or over 50 percent. For the last four months he has been effectively flatlined at a 35 percent approval rating. It’s as if Bush used all his political chits on his re-election campaign in 2004, leaving none for his second term. The list of second term administration foul- ups seems endless: Iraq, a dead-on-arrival Social Security reform plan, Hurricane Katrina, and the disgrace of mistreated veterans at Walter Reed hospital. It is not much of an exaggeration, as Joe Klein recently wrote in Time magazine, that this presidency is in slow motion collapse, but with nearly two years to go before it runs its course.

How might this impact the 2008 elections? First, the stipulation: the election is still 18 months away — things can change. But as they stand now, Republican prospects look problematic or worse. And in my view, the only thing that is going to change that dynamic is real progress in Iraq.

At the presidential level, Republican candidates face this conundrum: No Republican is likely to win the nomination who criticizes the president too harshly (the president continues to hold the support of about 75 percent of Republicans); but no Republican can win a general election identifying himself with the administration’s policies on Iraq, or much of anything else. (The president’s approval ratings are in the 20s among Independents and less than 10 percent among Democrats).

How will the Republican nominee next year square that circle? It won’t be easy. While there are differences, the Republican presidential nominee’s strategic conundrum looks a bit like Hubert Humphrey’s in 1968, when he attempted to succeed a president of his party saddled with low approval ratings and an unpopular, seemingly unwinnable war. Granted, the Democrats in 1968 were more divided on Vietnam than the Republicans are over Iraq right now. But barring very good news out of Iraq, make no mistake, the Democrats will wrap Iraq and George Bush around the neck of every Republican candidate for federal office next year.

The good news on the presidential level for Republicans is that despite the generic brand problems for the party, its two best-known candidates (Rudy Giuliani and John McCain) are running about evenly with the best-known Democrats. This probably reflects the uneasiness or outright dislike that a significant proportion of the electorate have for Senator Hillary Clinton and the relative lack of awareness they have of Barack Obama and John Edwards, rather than an endorsement of the Republicans. But at this point it is about the only thin reed from public opinion data that the Republicans can grasp.

The implications for the party down ballot are serious. There is a reason that the GOP is having early recruiting problems for congressional seats next year. There is a reason that, in Oregon, Congressmen Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer are now taking a serious look at running against Gordon Smith. The odds are that neither will make the decision to run, but clearly they see the junior senator as vulnerable, and they are right. Many other Republicans from marginally blue or swing states will be looking at difficult elections next year. How many Republican incumbents might decide that it isn’t worth the effort to try to get re-elected in a tough environment only to be in the congressional minority again when 2009 comes around? Compounding the problem at the Senate level is the fact that there are 21 Republican seats and only 12 Democrat seats up next year, so Republicans are quite likely to be in a deeper hole in the U.S. Senate after next year than they are now.

Further, even some of the Republicans who are now trying to give the president support will come under increasing pressure over the next few months to back away from him, absent some dramatic improvement in Iraq that would justify their staying the course.

President George W. Bush staked his country’s security, his own place in history, and his party’s short to mid- term (at least) political future on the Iraq gambit. You don’t have to be a lefty to acknowledge that four years after the president declared “mission accomplished” and announced that major combat operations were over in Iraq it looks like a bad bet all the way around.

BrainstormNW - May 2007

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