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
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
“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
“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
Democrats bet that this particular well has dried up
“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
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.”