Joe Conason's Journal

What the poll numbers really say about our "hugely popular Republican commander in chief."

Published May 22, 2003 5:50PM (EDT)

Why Rove should worry, too
Lately I hear much of what I call "the counsel of despair" from Democrats and other progressives who seem demoralized by the constant media repetition of phrases like "hugely popular Republican commander in chief." How, they ask, can anyone expect to defeat Bush next year?

If all that matters is a servile press (and I don't discount its importance), then Bush may indeed be very difficult to beat. But there are other, underlying factors that portend trouble for this president, as Karl Rove understands very well.

A glance at recent polls reveals that Bush's "huge" popularity, when not propped up by war, is quickly returning to ordinary levels. (For some reason, the media rarely referred to Bill Clinton as "hugely popular" even when his approval ratings rose to 75 percent.) More significantly, Bush's "reelect" numbers have again dropped below 50 percent in most surveys, which is where they have languished during most of his presidency.

For instance, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows him with 47 percent, or a couple of points less than he got in the 2000 election. The Ipsos-Reid/Cook Political Report poll taken two weeks ago shows him at 43 percent. The CBS News/New York Times poll gives Bush 34 percent, the unnamed Democrat 21 percent, with 56 percent of independent voters undecided.

Whatever their opinions about war and terrorism, voters are presently more worried about the economy, with good reason. The Philadelphia Fed survey of economists released earlier this week cut growth forecasts sharply, as unemployment continues to rise. First-term presidents with that kind of economic record don't usually get a second term.

Yes, the Democrats have to find a voice and a focus. Yes, national security will be a salient issue, and perhaps the dominant issue depending on events yet to unfold. Yes, the Republicans are raising an enormous campaign war chest and rewarding their donors -- even with what Bush called an "itty-bitty" tax cut.

But voters apparently hate the tax package. (An excellent blog aptly named "It's Still the Economy, Stupid" provides graphic illustrations of how the GOP "jobs" tax cut will be maldistributed -- and the record number of jobs Bush has lost so far.) And remember that Bush outspent Al Gore by many, many millions of dollars -- and lost the election by a few million votes. He may win, but he isn't unbeatable.

War without end
A reader writes to protest the amount of space I've devoted to controversy over "The Clinton Wars" while more urgent issues demand attention. Others such as Atrios remain fascinated by that unending conflict, as am I. Anyway, I should mention that Joseph Lelyveld has sent this letter to the New York Review of Books acknowledging errors in his review of "The Clinton Wars." Despite its facetious tone, its avoidance of the questions I raised about reporting failures by the Times under his leadership, and some special pleading, his admissions are better than nothing.

Somewhat disingenuously, however, the former Times executive editor now claims he meant to say that Blumenthal never received a "personal apology" from Clinton. Yet that phrase appears nowhere in his review. Clinton's televised speech to the nation after his grand jury appearance, he wrote, "was the only apology Blumenthal would ever get." As recounted on Page 552, Clinton later expressed his regrets to Blumenthal in a private meeting. Referring to the president's former aide as "the underling" underlines both Lelyveld's bilious attitude and his careless mistake.
[12:25 p.m. PDT, May 22, 2003]

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