San Diego Union Tribune

September 2, 2006

Bush turning up the rhetoric once more to rally GOP troops


WASHINGTON – With his party's loss of Congress looming as a real possibility, President Bush has launched yet another effort to rally uneasy Republicans and raise fresh concerns about Democrats with a series of increasingly pointed speeches that began this week.


When the president, in a speech Thursday to the American Legion in Salt Lake City, warned that defeat in Iraq will mean “terrorists in the streets of our own cities,” he was signaling that he hopes, once again, to turn the war in Iraq into a political plus for his party despite what the polls now show.

His remarks came after even tougher and blunter speeches by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that cast Democrats as defeatists eager for “retreat” and “appeasement” in the face of a determined terrorist enemy.

Republicans plan even more speeches and congressional debates in the lead-up to the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the hope of energizing core Republicans and portraying Bush as the only safe alternative.

For the president, it's a return to the political strategy that paid off with voters in 2002 and 2004. But there are questions whether it can work a third time in 2006 with an electorate that has soured on the war in Iraq.

“Do they really have any options other than to try this again? The answer is probably not,” said longtime presidential scholar Stephen Hess, a George Washington University professor and veteran of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations.

“They are heading into a pretty stiff wind. It's the other side that's got the majority polling data with them,” Hess said. “Politicians always go back to what worked for them before, and this worked for them. . . . But can they keep going back to the well, and how deep is the well?”

Democrats bet that this particular well has dried up for Bush.

“There have been some fundamental changes in the political environment,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said. “And doing the same thing in a radically different environment doesn't give you the same results.

“In those earlier elections, Republicans had a 35-point advantage on national security. Today, that is down to between zero and 8 points.”

Karlyn Bowman, an expert on public opinion at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said opinions on the war have hardened considerably since those earlier elections and are unlikely to change because of Republican speeches. But she said they still can pay off for Bush because the public is so skeptical that the Democrats have any real alternative to current policies.

“The strategy for the fall is to compare and contrast,” Bowman said. “People may not like where the administration wants to go, but at least they know where the administration stands, and they are not at all sure where the Democrats stand on the war in Iraq.”

Independent pollster John Zogby said the Republican strategy has a chance at working solely because the Democrats have failed to outline a clear plan for Iraq.

“(Bush) gets to take advantage of the vacuum because the Democrats still have not really established credibility on fighting the war on terrorism,” Zogby said.

But he said the president is considerably weaker than in 2002, when he was at 60 percent approval, and in 2004, when he was at 50 percent. Today, Bush is between 35 percent and 40 percent.

Even some Republicans this week warned the White House that Republicans risk a political backlash if their speeches are seen as “over the top,” as many saw the comments by Cheney and Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld drew the most fire, comparing the war's critics to those who wanted to appease the Nazis.

“Rumsfeld and Cheney may have the opposite reaction and may help get out the Democratic base,” Zogby said.

“They've crossed the line into absurd overstatement,” Democratic pollster Mellman said. “The desperation of their rhetoric reflects the desperation of their situation.”

Bowman acknowledged the risk but said Republicans have no choice but to use strong rhetoric.

“They need to make their case as strongly as they can, and that's what they're trying to do,” she said. “Some people will object to that strongly, but I think a lot of Americans will think about what they say.”

Hess said another danger is that after so many Bush speeches on the war, the public will simply tune him out.

“People can turn (him) off just because they've heard it before,” Hess said. “Nothing is as effective the fifth time as the first time.”

 »Next Story»