Bush's sinking popularity

With his Social Security plan in a vegetative state and the Iraq war mired in chaos, the president's poll numbers are tanking. Is he pulling the Republican Party down with him?

Published April 29, 2005 9:47PM (EDT)

George W. Bush lost the 2000 presidential election by half a million votes and saw the result as a mandate to rewrite the tax code and redraw the map of the world. So when he won the 2004 election by 3 million votes, liberals could have been excused for wondering what the weather would be like in Vancouver for the next four years.

Bush's second-term agenda was so unapologetically bold -- he wanted to privatize Social Security, flatten federal taxes, remake the courts and, on the side, democratize the world -- it bordered on the revolutionary. In November, as liberals were sunk in the delirium of defeat, their in boxes buzzing with comic maps dividing North America into the United States of Canada and Jesusland, it seemed that nothing could rein the Republican president in.

Six months later, Bush is the dog that didn't bite. He approaches the end of the first 100 days of his second term with approval ratings that fall below those of all other reelected presidents in the modern era. Americans aren't happy with the direction in which the country is heading. They don't like the economy, and they don't like the war. They also don't like Bush's plans for the nation. If it isn't already dead, Bush's signature domestic-policy effort, the plan to privatize Social Security, is in a persistent vegetative state; hated by Democrats, independents and even Republicans, only divine intervention can save it.

Now the question is whether Bush's sinking popularity -- and his desire to stick with the unpopular Social Security plan -- will hurt the Republican Party's agenda over the next two years and beyond. The GOP continues to advocate world-changing plans. Conservatives want to amend the Constitution, alter the Senate's rules on judicial nominees, and disrupt long-standing fiscal, environmental, global and social norms. At the same time, Bush looks boxed in. There's no money in the federal till to implement his tax cuts. The military's stretched too thin for him to invade another country (such as Iran). And the federal courts are holding his social agenda in check.

Some key Republicans are beginning to balk at Bush's extremism. On questions involving the Social Security plan, or the details of the federal budget, or the confirmation of Bush's nominees, a few moderate Republicans have begun to go against White House plans. If the American public continues to turn away from Bush, political strategists say, it's only logical to expect more defections from their Republican representatives on Capitol Hill.

"If this guy was riding a 60 percent approval rating, it would be different," says Ruy Teixeira, the Democratic pollster who runs the popular blog Donkey Rising. But if members of Congress begin to realize that Bush isn't popular with the American public, "that makes them more willing to defy him."

It's not entirely accurate to say that the polls show the country as recently turning against Bush. What's truer is that the country never really liked him. Only a minority of Americans have consistently agreed with his positions on most questions of policy. The main reason the majority chose him last November was his tough stance on a single issue: terrorism. Yet hard-line conservatives saw the 2004 election as a green light for right-wing radicalism -- as a sign that the public wanted Social Security privatization, a change to the tax code, and a generally conservative social agenda (including a prohibition on gay marriage).

Bush was only too happy to oblige. He "has gone very public with very unpopular ideas," says Karl Agne, a consultant who works with Democracy Corps, a political strategy organization dedicated to restoring Democrats to national prominence. Bush believed he could stake out radical positions and bring the public to his side. It's not hard to see why: Even though he won by a slight majority, Bush had good reason to believe that he could push his issues through the Congress. As political scientist Michael Nelson has pointed out, there was something unique about Bush's victory -- he managed to expand his party's grip on Congress, which Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, all of whom were reelected with larger popular-vote margins, failed to do.

According to Frank Newport, who runs the Gallup Poll, Bush's popularity peaked in early February, around the time of his State of the Union address. He was on top of the world -- 57 percent of those surveyed approved of his performance and 40 percent disapproved. In his speech, Bush sought to link his apparent foreign-policy successes, such as the election in Iraq, to his domestic-policy goals. Just as the American people had supported him on the war in Iraq, so, too, did Bush want them to support his judicial nominations, his tax plan and especially his goal to privatize Social Security.

That support failed to materialize -- and his approval numbers have been plummeting. In Gallup's latest poll, Bush scores a 48 percent approval rating and a disapproval rating of 49 percent. (Other surveys report similar numbers.)

Pollsters point to many reasons for Bush's decline, including high gas prices and the Republicans' unpopular decision to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case. But by far the main issue pushing Bush down, they say, is his ambition to privatize Social Security. It literally is the case that "the more he talks about it, the lower his ratings go," says Newport.

But as Paul Krugman has noted, Bush's Social Security plan is only one skein of the radicalism that runs through all of his second-term proposals -- on economic policy, on social policy and on foreign policy, Bush favors right-wing ideas that, polls show, appeal to only a minority of Americans. It's possible, then, to see the public's rejection of the Social Security plan as a rejection of radical conservatism. Americans may have given Republicans the keys to Washington, but they didn't want them to run roughshod over the place.

It's not clear, though, that Republican lawmakers interpret Bush's loss on Social Security as a sign that the public doesn't want conservative policies. Indeed, pollsters are of mixed opinion on whether Bush's approval ratings matter to Congress at all.

Approval ratings are by nature volatile. The public's opinion of a politician goes up or down over time and the poll numbers don't always reflect failure. Members of Congress understand this, says Gallup's Newport. He points out that Congress members don't usually decide whether to support a president based on approval ratings. What's more, says Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, the public has recently lost confidence in all American institutions.

Surveys show that Americans aren't huge fans of either Republicans or Democrats in Congress. In recent months, approval ratings for the military -- consistently the most beloved institution in government -- have also been on the decline. If members of Congress are feeling the heat, they're not likely to balk at the president's low rating.

Moreover, Republicans in Congress have been subject to tremendous pressure from extremists urging them to simply ignore surveys charting American opinion. Around the time of the Schiavo case, when polls showed that the overwhelming majority of Americans rejected federal intervention to keep the brain-damaged woman alive, leaders of the religious right insisted that public opinion didn't matter because the public simply didn't understand the issues involved in the case.

They're at it again. In an e-mail to supporters sent on Wednesday, Tony Perkins, who heads the Family Research Council, wrote that a recent Washington Post poll showing that Americans oppose the elimination of the Senate filibuster should not be trusted, as it reflected the Post's biased liberal view. Gary Bauer told his supporters the same thing: "The Post hopes the poll will buckle Republican knees, particularly those of moderates who want to be thought of as independent-thinking," the former presidential candidate wrote in his daily newsletter on Tuesday. Citing a poll conducted by the Republican National Committee that's more supportive of his own position, Bauer concluded that "there is no reason for any Republican senator to 'wimp out'" on the filibuster vote.

Teixeira, however, believes that Bush's failure on Social Security and his attendant low approval ratings do upset the conventional Washington wisdom about the president -- the thought that "this is a guy who always wins." He says Bush's low ratings may already be shaping actions on Capitol Hill.

In March, for instance, Senate Republicans disappointed the White House by proposing a budget that would reduce the size of future tax cuts over the next five years (instead of the $100 billion in tax cuts that the White House wanted, the senators proposed $70 billion). Then, seven Republican senators crossed the partisan divide to join Democrats in rejecting the Bush administration's proposed cuts to the Medicare program. These seven -- Gordon Smith of Oregon, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine -- are all known as moderates in the GOP (what extremists sometimes call RINOs, Republicans in name only).

The cuts they rejected have been added back to the final budget bill, which was drafted in a conference committee composed of Republican leaders from the House and Senate and which will come up for a final vote in both chambers of Congress soon -- as soon as Friday. It's not clear if the moderates will risk angering their party by voting down the final bill. Already, Smith has threatened to vote against it. Whatever they do will be a good indication of their fealty to Bush.

Recently, signs of Republican opposition to Bush's plans have become even more pronounced. Last week, in a surprise move, one Republican senator -- Ohio's George Voinovich -- held up Bush's nomination of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. Voinovich has since been joined by a handful of other Republicans who've expressed opposition to Bolton. And several Republicans have been backing away from Bush on his prized Social Security plan.

At a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, Wyoming's Craig Thomas, who isn't anywhere near his party's moderate wing, wondered whether it was a good idea to spend the trillions necessary to implement Bush's plan. And Snowe, who's long signaled her opposition to the Bush effort, stood firm. "Social Security became the bedrock of support for seniors in my state precisely because it's defined and guaranteed," she said. "What cost and what risk is it worth to erode the guaranteed benefit?"

Jeffrey Bell, a Republican political consultant, says that if Bush holds on to his Social Security plan too long, or if he vows to pass it after the 2006 election, Democrats will make it a key issue against Republicans at the polls -- and Republican lawmakers aren't looking forward to running on the platform of Social Security privatization. Bush needs to find a way to back out of the plan without causing trouble for his party, Bell says. "Part of what I'm saying is that Bush had a very successful first term in terms of his domestic legislation, but he isn't going to run again, and he doesn't have quite as much clout over his party members as he once did. It's important for him to know how to take a defeat."

However, Bell doesn't think that Bush's low poll numbers signify a greater problem for the GOP's agenda. He believes, for instance, that Bush may still be able to encourage Congress to approve his tax-cutting plans, including his effort to repeal the estate tax.

But Bell and other Republicans admit that even getting tax cuts through Congress won't be a slam dunk. Bush, after all, has spent a great deal of his time recently pointing out the fiscal imbalances in the Social Security program. In calling for more tax cuts, Bush will need to defend himself against the charge that he's bankrupting the federal government. "It doesn't seem appropriate to point out those problems [in Social Security] and then to say, By the way, please make my tax cuts permanent," Bell says.

Like many Republicans, Bell argues that even if Bush faces difficulty with Congress on his domestic plans, what the president does have going for him is his foreign policy. Recent opinion surveys, however, tell another story. Despite the White House's claim of victory in Iraq, Americans don't like how Bush is handling the war and don't believe the war was worth the cost. In most polls, between 40 and 50 percent of Americans say they approve of the war effort; majorities usually say they disapprove of it.

The reason is obvious, says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics: "A lot of Americans are dying there and people want out."

Americans also don't seem to believe Bush's assurance that democratization of the Middle East is necessarily connected to terrorism on American soil. The public may credit Bush with positive developments in Iraq, but they'll do it the same way that they "gave Jimmy Carter credit for the Camp David Peace Accords -- it pleases them, but it doesn't affect their immediate concerns," Sabato says.

This development has got to be distressing to the White House. For two years, Bush has insisted that his Iraq policy would, in the long run, prove successful. Many in the White House must have expected the public to react positively to Bush when positive signs arose in Iraq. Indeed, after Iraq's elections, Republicans couldn't take enough credit for the wide turnout of Iraqi voters. Remember all those purple-fingered lawmakers at the State of the Union address?

It's turned out that success in Iraq hasn't bolstered support for Bush. The election only prompted Americans to question whether now is the time to bring American troops home. And even the success of the election is beginning to look illusory. As new horrors are emerging from Iraq, the war has once more become Bush's albatross.

So if Bush can't count on gaining the public's support even when things go well in Iraq, what can he count on? Not much, according to Teixeira. "You look forward and to see what's going to take them over that funk, and you do wonder. Is the economy going to come back strong? Probably not. Is he going to be bailed out by the outbreak of democracy in the Middle East? Well, obviously not. The election already happened and his ratings on Iraq have gone nowhere. It's hard to see where he can win."

None of this is to suggest that Bush is destined to fail. He and his political strategist Karl Rove have a history of performing legislative magic tricks. They've outmaneuvered Democrats rather brilliantly for the last five years. And both Republican and Democratic political consultants caution that fortunes change quickly in Washington. Soon, the Republicans may win their effort to eliminate the Senate's filibuster on judicial nominees, or they may pass Bush's energy bill or eliminate the estate tax or claim victory on any one of several policy goals they have for this legislative term.

At the same time, Democrats are not doing particularly well. So far, their primary weapon has been their united stance in opposition to Bush. Bell, the Republican pollster, says Democrats should get some credit for this; it's a smart strategy. And liberals are more than willing to take the credit.

"Frankly our expectation was that with all three branches of government held by the Republicans, we would be in a poor position," says Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org. But "working together with a lot of groups, we've held the line," he says. "It's been quite a surprising and encouraging and hopeful thing."

But to fight the Republicans over the long haul, Democrats will need to do more than just oppose Bush's policies. "I wouldn't say Democrats have benefited from lying low," offers Agne of Democracy Corps. "I would say Democrats are in a bad place right now. The public has a lot of questions about what they stand for."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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