For the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, national security is no longer President Bush’s trump card.
With violence grinding on in Iraq, a majority of Americans have been telling pollsters in recent weeks that they trust Democrats as much or more than Bush or his Republican allies in Congress to protect the country, combat terrorism and run a sound foreign policy.
“The advantage the president has had on national security is either much smaller now or is perhaps gone,” said pollster Scott Rasmussen. “What has been new in the last few months is a decline in support among the Republican base. Republicans are beginning to have doubts about the connection between Iraq and the larger war on terror. And they are less confident that we are doing well in the war on terror.”
Bush’s problems with Iraq and other national security issues have contributed mightily to the drop in his overall approval ratings, which have fallen into the low 30s.
Influential GOP political consultants agree that the turmoil in Iraq is by far the main reason for Bush’s drop-off on national security. Beyond Iraq, they cite the current immigration debate and Bush’s decision in February to allow Dubai Ports World, a United Arab Emirates firm, to manage six U.S. ports.
“The Dubai Ports controversy was the tipping point,” said Scott Reed, a prominent consultant who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. “In that one instant, the country became skeptical about Bush’s commitment to protecting our country. It also allowed his opponents to get to the right of him on the security issue. He’s been unable to regain the high ground.”
Significantly, Republican lawmakers rebelled against Bush on the Dubai Ports World deal, forcing him to agree to more extensive review.
On immigration, Reed and other Republican operatives say the ongoing struggle between competing House and Senate bills serves as a reminder to Americans that U.S. borders are porous.
And Bush’s support for the Senate bill, which would offer possible citizenship to illegal immigrants and create a temporary worker program, puts him at odds with many Republicans who prefer a House measure focused solely on enforcing the border and penalizing illegal immigrants.
“The combination of these three issues has created a Molotov cocktail for the president and his party,” Reed said.
Several analysts said a string of events has raised public doubts about the Bush administration’s competence, starting with the government’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina last summer.
Bill Greener, who is consulting six GOP incumbents and four Republican challengers in the November congressional elections, is unconvinced that Democrats can hold their gains on national security because he says they have not offered appealing alternatives for Iraq or other key issues.
But many Republican consultants acknowledge that their candidates are nervous.
“The president’s numbers are in the tank across the board,” said Charlie Black, an influential Republican consultant who talks regularly with party activists across the country. “The public is frustrated with Iraq, so they’re just down on him about everything.”
If his fellow Republicans are feeling edgy, Bush gives no indication that he will change course.
“I can understand why the American people are troubled by the war in Iraq,” Bush told reporters Thursday evening, visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair at his side. “I understand that. But I also believe the sacrifice is worth it and it’s necessary. And I believe a free Iraq is not only going to make ourselves more secure, but it’s going to serve as a powerful example in the Middle East.”
Bush reiterated his oft-cited refusal to bend to the political winds.
“You don’t want, you know, politicians making decisions based upon politics,” Bush said. “You want the commander in chief making decisions based upon what the military thinks is the right way to achieve the objective. I’ve set the objective _ it’s clear for everybody _ a country that can sustain itself, defend itself and govern itself. And we’re making progress on all fronts.”
While it could prove short-lived, Democrats’ parity with Bush on Iraq, terrorism and other muscular issues represents a seismic shift in the nation’s political psyche.
Ever since he stood in the World Trade Center rubble and hollered a tough warning to Osama bin Laden through a megaphone, Bush had enjoyed a widespread reputation as a strong, resolute leader.
Even after the Democrats chose a decorated Vietnam War veteran, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, as their 2004 presidential nominee, Bush ran a successful re-election campaign based on the central theme that Americans would be safer with him in the White House.
Now, Americans are having second thoughts.
In a CBS News poll taken May 16 and 17, 46 percent of American adults said they approve of how Bush is handling the campaign against terrorism. That figure is down from 58 percent a year ago _ and even further below the 62 percent average support Bush has enjoyed since Sept. 11 in regular CBS News polls on the same issue.
A National Public Radio survey in mid-March asked participants who they trusted more _ “George Bush or the Democrats” _ to handle a range of issues.
On illegal immigration, Democrats led Bush by 52 percent to 39 percent. On “foreign ownership of U.S. port operations and lack of attention to homeland security,” Democrats were ahead, 55 percent to 39 percent. On Iraq, Democrats led Bush by 52 percent to 43 percent.
Among major foreign policy issues, Bush bested Democrats only in handling Iran’s bid to develop nuclear weapons, 48 percent to 44 percent.
In a separate, CNN head-to-head poll that might have been tinged by nostalgia, conducted May 5-7, 56 percent of Americans said President Clinton did a better job on foreign affairs, while only 32 percent chose Bush over Clinton.
Several other polls also showed Bush at low ebb on a range of issues tied to national security and foreign policy.
Perhaps the most frightening survey for Republicans was a state-by-state poll released May 15 by Survey USA.
Bush had a positive net rating _ in which more people approved than disapproved of his performance _ in only three states: Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.
Bush had a net negative rating in all 47 other states, including more than dozen solidly Republican states that he carried easily in 2004.
In Missouri, for example, only 29 percent of those surveyed said they approved of Bush’s performance, while 68 percent expressed disapproval. Bush defeated Kerry in the “Show Me State” by a more than 7-point margin, 53.3 percent to 46.1 percent.
“We’re right at what I consider to be rock bottom,” said Black, the Republican consultant. “I don’t think the president’s numbers are good anywhere.”