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Is Bush’s “Oratory” Keeping the American Public from Turning against the War?

That’s the contention of today’s front page story by Dana Milbank in The Washington Post. There’s only one slight problem with this: the American public, by any reasonable standard is turning against the war. Now you could reasonably say that support for the war effort has not completely collapsed, despite the recent string of bad news. Or that Bush’s rhetoric is helping slow the rate of decline. Or that his “oratory” helped contribute to the recent rally effect that may have elevated Bush in the polls by a few points. But you can’t say the public isn’t turning against the war, because they are.
Here are some recent data from the Post‘s own poll, which Milbank rather selectively cites in his piece. That poll has close to an even split (51-47) on whether the war with Iraq was worth fighting. The poll also shows a close split on a related question: whether the US did the right thing in going to war with Iraq or whether it was a mistake (52-46). Last April, this same question was 81-16.
Let’s dwell on that last datum a bit. In the last year, the public has gone from a 65 point margin in favor of the Iraq war being the right thing to do, not a mistake, to a mere 6 point margin. And, as I mentioned on Friday, one poll question is already returning a plurality in favor of the war being a mistake (and that was down from a lopsidedly positive reply–67 percent right decision/29 percent mistake–four months before).
If that’s not turning against the war, I don’t know what is. With the war in Vietnam, it took about two years to get to the point where we are already in terms of thinking the war was a mistake. So, not only is the public turning against the war, it’s turning against it fast, by recent standards.
And here are some more data from the Post‘s own poll, none of which make it into Milbank’s article.
People feel, by 51-34, that the middle east is less stable, rather than more stable, as a result of the war. They think, by 57-37, that the US will not be able to establish a stable democracy in Iraq. They also believe, by 35-29, that the war in Iraq has left the US in a weaker not stronger, position in the world (last April, the public thought the war will make us stronger, by 52-12). And about two-thirds (65 percent) now say that, given the goals vs. costs of the war, the number of casualties we are sustaining is unacceptable.
Oh, but this isn’t “turning against the war”, I suppose. Perhaps it merely qualifies as “raising a quizzical eyebrow”.
Of course, it’s not just the Post‘s own poll:
In the most recent CBS News poll, only 36 percent believe the war has made the US safer from terrorism; only 34 percent believe the Iraq war is a major part of the war against terrorism; and just 15 percent believe the Bush administration has clearly explained how long US troops will be in Iraq.
In the most recent Pew poll, the public is now close to evenly split on whether to keep troops in Iraq until a stable government is etablished (50 percent) or simply bring troops home as soon as possible (44 percent). That’s down from strong 63-32 support for keeping troops there in January.
And, as I mentioned in my post on Friday, the latest Ipsos poll finds that the public believes by about 2:1 that the military action in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism in the world, rather than decreased it (“increased” and “decreased” were tied only four months ago). That poll also found that, by 17 points, the public believes the Iraq war will increase, not decrease, the amount of terrorism at home in the US. (Note that the latest Annenberg election survey had that sentiment even stronger–2:1 in favor of the Iraq war increasing the amount of terrorism in the US).
Ah, but the public isn’t turning against the war. Right.
The article’s evidence, such as it is, for this absurd contention seems to revolve around the alleged fact that Bush’s oratory has convinced the American public of three points:
1. That the US will prevail in Iraq. But according to the Post‘s own poll, the public thinks the US has gotten “bogged down” in Iraq (59 percent), rather than that the US is making good progress (41 percent). And note the view cited above on how the US will not be able to establish a stable democracy in Iraq.
2. That the fighting in Iraq is related to war against Al Qaeda. Sure people think the war in Iraq is related to the war against Al Qaeda–but negatively so! As the data above clearly show, the public believes the war in Iraq is increasing the threat of terrorism and the danger that a group like Al Qaeda will hit the US homeland again. Note also that few Americans think the war in Iraq is major part of the war against terrorism and that most Americans think fighting Al Qaeda not the war in Iraq should the focus of our efforts to fight terrorism.
3. That most Iraqis and many foreign countries support US actions in Iraq. But the latest Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll (which Milbank cites at another point in the article for different purposes) finds the public saying, by 51-47, that the majority of the Iraqis want us to leave, not stay. That’s a big change from November when the same question returned a 39 percent leave/58 percent stay response.
Beyond these “facts”, the article cites PIPA findings that indicate many members of the public continue to harbor apparent misconceptions about the ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam and about the existence of WMD and WMD programs in Iraq prior to the war. True enough. But these misconceptions, while still at disturbing levels, are nevertheless substantially lower in most cases than they were prior to the war. And the continued harboring of misconceptions is not evidence the public is not turning against the war; it merely means they have misconceptions. When the public was turning against the Vietnam war in 1967-68, many of those who were starting to think the war was a mistake still harbored lots of mistaken, if not bizarre, ideas about the origins of the Vietnam conflict, who controlled Ho Chi Minh, etc. But their misconceptions, in the end, did not prevent them from opposing the Vietnam war and punishing those politicians whom they felt had led them astray. I suspect the same phenomenon will play itself out with the Iraq war.
As added evidence for this view, the PIPA poll already shows that the way Bush has dealt with the Iraq situation, on net, cuts against him electorally. According to the poll, 41 percent say Bush’s actions in Iraq will decrease the likelihood that they will vote for him, compared to 34 percent who say his Iraq actions will increase their likelihood of supporting him. That compares to 30/35 last September, when it appeared his Iraq policy was a net benefit to him.
But times have changed. Time for the Post to catch up.

10 comments on “Is Bush’s “Oratory” Keeping the American Public from Turning against the War?

  1. bt on

    I do not have the backup for this in the form of poll numbers before and after the event. But if memory serves, Michael Dukakis’ campaign suffered after CNN anchor Bernard Shaw asked him in a debate if his opposition to the death penalty would change if his wife were murdered and Dukakis gave a policy wonk’s no in response.
    I’m not suggesting most of us have had an immediate family member murdered. But this may have been close enough to the sort of experience more voters could relate to to lower their opinion of Dukakis based on his response. It was by no means a foregone conclusion throughout that campaign that he was going to lose. In fact I think he was well ahead after the Democratic convention.
    When it came out during a recession that Bush 41 did not know what a supermarket checkout scanner was that did not help his cause. Again I lack the specifics on timing of when this came out, public opinion data before and at various points after, other events that may have contributed as much or more to a downward approval trend, etc.
    With Al Gore, there came what seemed to be a tipping point where the charge that he was a serial exaggerator (the incorrect charge that he claimed to have invented the Internet, for example; Eric Alterman in his book What Liberal Media? did a good job of documenting how off base much of this relentlessly repeated media drumbeat was) became the stuff of Leno and Letterman routines. All of us know–or knew–someone like the serial exaggerator.

  2. Sara on

    Can anyone put some historic examples on the table concerning when and following what argument people reversed beliefs about something, and thus changed their political support for a candidate. I remember some studies done in the wake of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation that suggested he lost the most support — critical support, when it became clear he had cheated on his income tax — something that was very much a side issue in the whole Watergate era and saga. Research seemed to suggest support changed only when the issue was part of the common experience, and not an offense only likely to be committed by a leading politician. Cheating on Taxes was something everyone had some insight into, but using the CIA to stump an FBI investigation was not common experience.

  3. Marcus Lindroos on

    > It is shocking to me that a majority of those
    > polled still believe that a) Iraq had WMD at the
    > time we invaded, and b) that Hussein was linked
    > to Al Qaeda and 9/11. Those two false beliefs are
    > the basis of Bush’s support. Bush and his minions
    > need to be confronted with the truth at every
    > opportunity.
    I wonder if this is a case of poor knowledge, or do these people simply “know in their heart” that those WMDs or secret Saddam/Al Qaeda papers exist no matter what the liberal media says? I suspect a signficant percentage of GOP voters would simply reiterate their belief that the WMD/Al Qaeda connection MUST be there, if somebody tried to correct their mistake. These days, the Administration prefers to avoid the subject but they keep insisting absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.

    Does anyone know if Zogby, Gallup & co. have ever asked the following simple set of questions?
    1) Do you believe that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq?
    2) Do you believe conclusive evidence has been found that Saddam was linked to Al Qaeda/the 9/11 attacks?
    3) Do you believe the invasion of Iraq was justified?
    [In case the respondent gave the wrong answer to questions 1 & 2, explain that no link has been found to date, then ask question #3 again… I somehow suspect GOP voters wouldn’t change their views that much when confronted with the truth]

  4. reignman on

    “They asked the question: “All in all, thinking about how things have gone in Iraq since the United States went to war there in March 2003, do you think the Bush administration made the right decision in going to war in Iraq or made a mistake in going to war in Iraq?” The response: 49 percent mistake/48 percent right decision. When Ipsos asked the same question four months ago, however, they got a lopsidedly positive reply: 67 percent right decision/29 percent mistake. Quite a change.

    hm…maybe Kerry SHOULD say we shouldn’t have gone to war after all, instead of “i didn’t like the way we WENT to war.” in fact, he could qualify that statement by saying that it WOULD have been worth the cost if we didn’t go in unilaterally, and he might even add that we SHOULDN’T have gone in if we couldn’t get mutlilateral support.

  5. David on

    It is shocking to me that a majority of those polled still believe that a) Iraq had WMD at the time we invaded, and b) that Hussein was linked to Al Qaeda and 9/11. Those two false beliefs are the basis of Bush’s support. Bush and his minions need to be confronted with the truth at every opportunity.

  6. CMU on

    The question is – Why aren’t we tipping it? Where are Kerry’s attack dogs? Are Dem politicians reverting to chickensh-t mode?

  7. PhillyGuy on

    Milbank’s article coincides with other commentary I heard this weekend on the Sunday talk shows. It seems they’ve all been drinking the same kool-aid. The Chris Matthews Show was particulary slanted toward the notion that the country is rallying around Bush despite bad news from Iraq. All their focus seems to center around the Gallup and ABC/WP polls that came out last week; they seem to have not heard about or to have discarded contradictory information from several other polls that show the race a dead heat or Kerry ahead. They also seem not to grasp the fact that almost all of Bush’s poll numbers are rather anemic, if not poor, for a sitting president in the spring of his re-election bid. Oh well, I’ve come to the conclusion that political pundits and weathermen have a distinct advantage over the rest of us–namely they get to predict and prognosticate ad nauseum and never suffer the consequences when they’re dead wrong. At least I hope and pray that they are wrong.

  8. Rich on

    While I agree that support for the war and Bush’s manner of waging it is decling, I think that when the rhetoric starts to lose its effectiveness the support will fall of a cliff.
    There are lots of issues that are still up in the air with the American public around the whole Global War on Terror, including, remarkably, the question of links between Sadaam and Osama Bin Ladin. I tend to believe that when support is grounded on falsehoods, you don’t see a drip/drip decline in support, but rather a tipping point decline.
    I also hope that this tipping point is reached before November, because if it comes later we could have a very ugly situation on our hands.


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