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Balancing Act

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Ever since recapturing control of Congress last November, Democrats have clearly had their work cut out for them. They have had to try to balance the demands of their liberal, militantly anti-war base with those of the broader electorate, whose support for the war has waned but whose attitudes toward Iraq policy remain nuanced and cautious. Like a chef trying to get the seasonings in a dish just right, Democrats are engaged in an inexact art and certainly no science.

A just-released ABC News/Washington Post national survey reveals how perilous this exercise is. The survey of 1,205 adults, conducted May 29-June 1, found that Congress's job-approval rating has dropped 5 points, to 39 percent, since mid-April. While the approval rating for congressional Republicans dropped 3 points, to 36 percent, the approval for Democrats plunged 10 points, to 44 percent.

When asked in April who was taking a stronger leadership role in government, 58 percent of respondents said Democrats and just 34 percent said President Bush, a 24-point Democratic edge. In the new poll, however, the Democratic advantage is just 2 points, 45 percent to 43 percent.

In addition, on the question of "who do you trust to do a better job on Iraq," the Democrats' advantage over Bush narrowed from 25 points in April, 58 percent to 33 percent, to 16 points in the new survey, 51 percent to 35 percent.

The numbers suggest that quite a few anti-war voters -- both Democrats and independents -- were disillusioned by congressional Democrats' decision to avoid another Bush veto by passing a war funding bill without attaching any timetable for withdrawal. Although neither ABC News nor The Post released any cross-tabs of the poll, The Post's analysis said that congressional Democrats' job-approval rating dropped 18 points among liberal Democrats and 12 points among independents. On the trust-to-handle-Iraq question, congressional Democrats' support among independents dropped 8 points.

Other polling has indicated that approval of Congress dropped after passage of a nonbinding resolution calling for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. The electorate apparently wasn't happy that it was nonbinding.

The president, who has a 35 percent approval rating overall in the latest ABC/Post poll, scores even lower when it comes to his handling of Iraq -- just 31 percent of respondents approve; 67 percent disapprove. In addition, a sizable majority of Americans -- 61 percent -- think that the war in Iraq is not worth fighting, while 37 percent disagree. Americans, by 53 percent to 44 percent, do not believe that the war has contributed to the long-term security of the United States.

Furthermore, 55 percent want U.S. forces in Iraq reduced, 19 percent want them increased, and 23 percent are content with current troop levels. Finally, 64 percent do not think that the U.S. is making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq; 32 percent feel that progress is being made.

Did congressional Democrats make a mistake by switching to a more cautious approach, passing a war funding bill with no strings rather than one with a timetable that would be vetoed -- a veto they could not override? Clearly, this move has antagonized many voters with strong anti-war feelings. But with no hope of overriding presidential vetoes anytime soon, Democrats would have run the risk of being portrayed as leaving U.S. troops in the field without adequate resources once the current spending bill expired.

Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans appear to be nearing the end of their rope on Iraq. Democrats will continue applying pressure to Bush and his fellow Republicans until someone breaks. When that happens, the balance may tip in Democrats' favor on this issue.

In short, Democratic leaders have opted for short-term pain in exchange for long-term gain. Anti-war forces are upset that the Democratic Party is not storming the ramparts every week. However, in November 2008, anti-war voters are very unlikely to defect to the GOP, stay home, or participate in another narcissistic exercise like backing Ralph Nader. That didn't work so well for them in 2000.

 
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