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Bottoming Out

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For the longest time, the political consequences of the war in Iraq were very simple: It was hurting Republicans -- no ifs, ands, or buts.

Scandals and other issues certainly contributed to the GOP's loss of six Senate seats, 30 House seats, a half-dozen governorships, and more than 300 state legislative seats in November. But the war in Iraq was, without question, the most important factor driving the election's outcome. And for the longest time, all Democrats had to do was demonstrate unqualified opposition to the decision to go to war and to the way the war was waged -- and then call on President Bush to withdraw U.S. troops.

But over the past month or two, the political situation has changed a bit. The anti-war group MoveOn.org commissioned Stan Greenberg to conduct a poll in 50 competitive congressional districts.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel has been circulating the survey's results, released on March 8, which indicate that voters are getting impatient with congressional Democrats for not doing more to stop the war.

In other polls, Congress still has higher job-approval ratings than it did under Republican rule, but the ratings have declined somewhat from earlier in the year -- very possibly a sign of frustration that Democrats have made little progress toward ending the war.

Democrats have therefore felt the need to act, to move beyond just pressuring Bush on Iraq. They felt a need to go further -- thus, House Democrats' decision to push through an August 2008 deadline for moving troops out of Iraq. On Thursday, the Senate approved timetable legislation that recommends but does not require a pullout by next March.

Meanwhile, in a Pew Research Center poll conducted March 21-25 among 1,503 adults, 40 percent of respondents said that Democrats in Congress had not gone far enough in challenging Bush on the war. Thirty percent said that congressional Democrats had applied about the right amount of pressure.

Only 23 percent thought that Congress had challenged Bush too much. And by 59 percent to 33 percent, respondents said they wanted House members to vote for a bill that called for withdrawal of troops by August 2008. All of this seems to endorse Democrats' actions thus far, and suggests that the party has not been too extreme.

Some signs indicate, however, that opposition to the war may have peaked. When the Pew pollsters asked whether the United States had made a mistake in using military force in Iraq, 43 percent of respondents said that it was the right decision and 49 percent said it was the wrong decision. What is notable is that "wrong decision" leads by only 6 points -- down from 14 points in February -- a smaller edge than in any of the other six Pew Center polls taken since late October.

Asked how the U.S. military effort is going in Iraq, 10 percent -- the highest level since June -- said "very well." Another 30 percent said "fairly well," the highest since late October. Thirty-two percent said "not too well," the same result as in mid-January's Pew poll.

The last time that fewer respondents chose "not too well" was in early June. And just 24 percent, the lowest number since early September, chose the most pessimistic choice, "not at all well."

This is not to suggest some dramatic turnaround in public opinion on the war. Indeed, 43 percent said in the most recent Pew poll that they favor keeping the troops in Iraq until things have stabilized; by contrast, 52 percent said they favor withdrawal as soon as possible. These numbers have remained constant for some time.

But the newest survey results suggest that opposition to the war is no longer growing, support for it is no longer in freefall, and public opinion may have steadied. Although it's too early to draw firm conclusions, opposition to the war may have leveled out.

Obviously, public opinion on the war is largely driven by news coming out of Iraq. Some reports seem to indicate that the situation is less volatile; others suggest that the surge -- indeed, the entire war -- is an exercise in futility and a costly one in terms of lives and money. Poll numbers over the next month or two should tell us whether opposition to the war has stopped growing.

 
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