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Stormy Summer Forecast

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In this last column before Labor Day, it seems like a good time to stop and take stock of the national political environment:
  • Opposition to and skepticism about the war in Iraq has reached its highest level, boosted by increased American casualties, a lack of political progress inside the country and growing signs of an imminent civil war. Given the centrality of the Iraq War to the Bush presidency and re-election, a cave-in of support for the president on the war would be devastating to his second-term credibility and influence.
  • While broad-based economic numbers continue to show strength, public attitudes about the economy and President Bush's handling of it remain pessimistic. Clearly a large segment of the U.S. population is enjoying strong and vibrant economic growth, while another is struggling to make ends meet. Rising energy costs, wages not keeping up with the cost of living and a perception that newly-created jobs are not paying as much as those being eliminated are feeding into this sentiment. The most recent spike in gasoline prices is coinciding with a worsening situation in Iraq, magnifying each problem for the president.
  • With the first of what is expected to be many indictments against influential Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff handed down last week, the GOP is holding its breath to see where and how far this goes. While House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and to a lesser extent, House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and even Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., have Abramoff-related problems, the danger is that it begins to reflect upon the entire Republican Party. This feeds into Democratic themes (stolen from House Republicans vintage 1994) that the majority party has become arrogant, corrupt and out of touch with the American people. The key question is whether DeLay will be indicted or whether he will be a key witness in upcoming high-profile corruption trials.
  • Despite passage of bankruptcy and class-action legal reform, and more recently, major highway and energy bills, the public perception remains that Congress has become self-absorbed and is not dealing with the big problems facing Americans. This is evidenced by extremely low job approval ratings for Congress, which are not too far off of where they were going into 1994.
  • Despite efforts on Capitol Hill to resuscitate Social Security reform, Bush's top priority for the first half of this year, it is clearly dead for the time being.
  • Tax reform is said to be the president's priority for the second half of the year, but prospects there don't look much better.
  • And while some in liberal and Democratic quarters are reading too much into the scare thrown at the GOP from the recent special election in Ohio's 2nd District, the result should be sufficient warning to Republicans that something is wrong and next year could be very bad. Democrats came within a couple percentage points of picking off the second-most Republican district in Ohio and the 57th most Republican district in the nation. Even if the results were 75 percent meaningful for Ohio, and just 25 percent for the other 49 states, it's a bad omen.

While none of this is new, the worsening of the situation in Iraq is the most pressing issue for Bush and the GOP.

For a month or two, there has been a theory circulating among those that watch polls that the American public can be broken down into four distinct groups: those that have always been against the war; those who were for it but now believe we've blown it and should pull out; those who supported the war, believe the invasion was successful but think that the aftermath has been completely blown, yet would hate to see us withdraw immediately and lose all we've invested; and those that have always been for the war.

Pollsters say that the first group -- always against -- makes up about 30 percent of the electorate, while the second group -- those that started off in favor of the war but now see it as a lost cause -- includes about 20 percent. These two categories total half of all voters in opposition.

The third group -- those that are conflicted because they see the effort as doomed and casualties increasing, yet still hate to see us 'cut and run' -- makes up another 25 percent. The last 25 percent remains supportive. What this means is that only a quarter of the American people are standing behind Bush on the war. The other three-quarters are either against him or highly critical of how he has handled the conflict and/or the aftermath.

Clearly events in Iraq are out of the president's control, yet an occasional speech before the troops in North Carolina or this past weekend's radio address is not going salvage what has become a public relations and policy debacle. Bush is going to have to clearly and repeatedly articulate why we are there and why we did things the way we did. He also needs to argue that progress is being made, and as bleak as things look now, there is light at the end of the tunnel and a strategy to get through and out of it. Don't be surprised if the president shows up in Iraq in the next month or two, demonstrating his commitment to the effort.

At this point, many Democrats and liberals, and probably more than a few Republicans, are reading this and rolling their eyes, thinking that it's hard, if not impossible, to put a happy face on a situation as bad as this one. Maybe they're right. But if you are president, head of your party, you must do what you can to address a problem and not just throw up your hands.

Arguably, some of the problems previously discussed can be lumped together in a category of "chickens coming home to roost." Luckily for Bush and the GOP, they were successful in keeping these chickens from roosting before last year's presidential election. But these problems are mounting and Republicans may have to take their lumps in the midterm elections instead. It can also be argued that while the president's previously strong ratings on the war, terrorism and national security provided something of a safety net for Republican candidates in the last two elections, it ironically could be a liability this time.

Having said all of this, the Nov. 8, 2006, midterm elections are still more than 14 months away, and things may get better or worse for Bush. But for now, the situation is bad and appears to be worsening.

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