In two previous columns, I examined Bush's approval ratings. Now, with nearly two months of new data, I draw a different conclusion from that in my last look. It could be that Bush has hit bottom after all. And if that's true, the hard fight of this election is only now beginning.
My initial column on this subject showed that just three events -- 9/11, the Iraq War, and the capture of Saddam Hussein -- explain nine-tenths of the variation in the month-to-month changes in Bush's approval rating. That's still true. For 32 out of 37 months, there was a steady decline of about 1.6 percentage points per month. Nothing Bush did or said, outside those major wartime events, seemed to help him.
At the time of that February column, however, there had never been an average Bush approval rating below 48 percent. It therefore was not possible to predict whether his decline would continue below that point. Would it pass through the boundary separating those who didn't vote for him in 2000 from those who did? At the time of the second column, in May, there was reason to think that it had. The equation predicted further declines in March and April, which did occur. And May was a low point, with an average approval rating across nine polls of just 45.6 percent.
But the latest numbers are better for Bush. The regression shows what's called a "positive residual" of two points in June and two and a half points in July. Thus, instead of continuing to fall, Bush gained slightly in June and even more thus far this month. Now he's back to an average rating of 47.5 percent. The funeral for Ronald Reagan probably helped. Several polls for July have yet to come in, and we might find that June was another special case, like the month of Saddam's capture. The pattern of steady decline could resume, but so far it hasn't.
All of this suggests that the true pattern is one in which events drive voters either toward Bush (9/11, Iraq, Saddam) or away from him (Abu Ghraib), but always with a slow return afterward toward the battle lines of 2000. The "two countries" -- red state, blue state -- view of American political life could be correct in the end.
This is not particularly good news for any Democrats tempted, at this early date, to predict an easy victory. Yes, Bush is down, and he's behind in head-to-head matchups. But there is still time for an attack on our soil, a crisis overseas, or victory in the "war on terror" to put him back in positive territory, at least for a while. Is this why we see administration pressure on Pakistan, as reported by John Judis in the New Republic, to deliver a "high-value target" in the days immediately ahead? Is this why we see the vague but threatening terror warnings of recent weeks, including the absurd suggestion that November's voting might have to be postponed?
I'm only asking. But these maneuvers do resemble the Republicans' tactics in 2002, when they rolled out the run-up to the Iraq War (White House chief of staff Andrew Card called it "new product") before the election. If you haven't figured it out, abuse of power isn't something these people do. It's who they are.
For the moment, the troubles in Iraq have damped the imperial fantasies of the controlling faction. But they haven't disappeared. Bush made this clear the other day with his definitive defense of his war in Iraq. He said: "Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq ... We removed a declared enemy of America who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them."
Was this just the latest lame defense of failure? Or was it a calculated statement of doctrine? It could be either. Unlike the neoconservatives before the United States went into Iraq, we should be prudent and assume the worst.
Read Bush's statement again. In it, he asserts a right to remove any "declared enemy" with "capability" to produce weapons who "could have passed that capability" along.
"Capability"? "Could have"? What trouble spots in the world doesn't this fit? It certainly fits North Korea and Iran. Will this doctrine thus lead to a raid on the internationally legal Iranian nuclear plant next year? It could, as the Times of London has reported, citing an unnamed U.S. administration source.
And as for a "declared enemy" -- declared by whom? The president's syntax leaves that vague. China, for instance, has not "declared" itself our enemy since President Nixon's visit in 1972. But like any other industrial power, it fits the other categories. What's to stop Bush from making the declaration? We could get "new product" on that front, or any other, at any time.
Consider too what the doctrine excludes. Pakistan actually has weapons of mass murder and actually has passed the capability along. It isn't a "declared enemy," but only because it has a government that pretends to be our friend. And we have a government that pretends to be Pakistan's friend -- even though the place is shot through with al-Qaida, right into the depths of its nuclear labs.
Remarkably, Bush's cataclysmic sentence was reported respectfully in our press instead of being widely singled out for what it is: prime evidence of a lethal contempt for reason. Plainly, a man prepared to overthrow foreign governments by force on the strength of such arguments is unlikely, on the face of it, to have deep respect for the democratic process in his own.
In the months ahead, faith and fear, drums and air-raid sirens may work powerfully on the election campaign. The men in power know these instruments and how to use them. They are as they seem: armed, dangerous and on the run.
From here, therefore, it looks like a hard fight. The fate of the country depends on how well John Kerry, John Edwards and their supporters wage it. They will have to work, against loud voices and in the face of unpredictable events, to persuade fellow Americans to choose hope over fear, reason over dogma, and republic over empire.