What the polls do and don’t say

With the initial mishandling of hurricane relief; the indictments of White House aide “Scooter” Libby and House Republican leader Tom DeLay, the investigation of Senate GOP leader Bill Frist, the growing allegations of pre-invasion lying about Iraq and the image of borrow-and-spend profligacy, Republicans are now being warned by pollsters that doom awaits them at the voting booths a year from now.

Where would we be without the ubiquitous demographers who predict the most dire political consequences a full 12 months before they have an opportunity of coming true? Whatever happened to the one immutable certainty in electioneering, that a weekend can be six months in politics? The question now most prominently asked by the national media: Can George W. Bush rebound enough to save his presidency and, in the process, his party’s fortunes?

Of course, he can _ but some things have to break his way. Even if he doesn’t, the Republicans in Congress, forewarned so long in advance, can keep their House and Senate majorities with a few adjustments, not the least of which would be to shed a recently acquired image of fiscal irresponsibility.

A longtime lobbyist and keen observer of the Washington scene asked me the other day whether I ever had seen a president tank or a party change it stripes so quickly. He said he had been a Republican for most of his voting life, and that he was now reconsidering, pushed along by a number of things, including the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in the highway bill.

Actually, both Lyndon Johnson and the current president’s father had about the same experience, soaring to unequaled heights in the polls and then descending just as quickly to new depths of disapproval. Johnson failed because of Vietnam, and the senior Bush because he didn’t understand how to fend off charges of economic laissez faire. Both still had to answer to the electorate. Johnson knew enough not to run again; and Bush tried and lost.

But this Bush has three years to win higher poll numbers and a better place in history, the only thing a lame-duck president has to consider. The lack of concern about public opinion and responsibility are the weaknesses of the constitutional term limit on the chief executive. While the limit permits the president to take tough and often unpopular stances, if he chooses, he can also hunker down Coolidge-like in the Oval Office, tending only to the ceremonial aspects of the job.

The president’s actions since Hurricane Katrina suggest he still hopes to come away as a strong leader despite domestic setbacks like debilitating oil prices. The success of that effort will depend a great deal on how quickly he can extricate the nation from a costly war that appears increasingly ill-advised. If Bush is forced to leave that to a successor, he, like Johnson, will be forever tarred with a costly misadventure no matter what else he accomplishes. It is now crystal-clear that Iraq never was the threat to this nation or the world it was painted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Americans in growing numbers have come to understand that.

As for the Republicans in Congress, they have a major ally in retaining their power: the Democrats. The surveys are finding an utter lack of voter faith in the minority party’s ability to solve anything. Democrats are seen as obstructionist, negative and disorganized. Their leaders in both houses spend most of their time in attack modes, firing charge after charge at Bush and his congressional allies.

Pollster Frank Luntz, who is highly critical of how the White House is handling things, says that salvation for the GOP next year may lie in the unrelenting demeanor of House Democratic chief Nancy Pelosi, who, he contends, has been the angriest, most bitterly negative political leader in years. As evidence of the truth of this he cites not only his own surveys but also a steady stream of diatribes at Bush and his friends that Pelosi launches almost daily on the House floor, in public speeches, and in e-mails to the press.

The strength of this nation always has been the willingness of its electorate to give its politicians the right to hang themselves. There is more than enough time for those now in office to escape the gallows. They clearly will need some breaks along the way, most specifically a way out of the morass of Iraq, sooner than later. The polls are pretty clear and accurate in that respect.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)