George W. Bush's poll numbers are down to the lowest levels of his presidency. What began as a trickle early this year has picked up steam due to an unremitting series of miscalculations, negative headlines, and events turning against long-standing administration policies. Could Republicans have guessed, after their triumph in the 2004 elections, that they would be reading news such as this one year later?
Fewer than one in 10 adults say they would prefer a congressional candidate who is a Republican and who agrees with Bush on most major issues, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday. Even among Republicans, seven of 10 are most likely to back a candidate who has had at least some disagreements with the president.
Bush's job-approval rating sank to a record 37%, down from a previous low of 39% a month ago. The poll finds growing criticism of the president, unease about the nation's direction and opposition to the war in Iraq.
It may be that 2005's off-off year elections (resulting in victories for the Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races) will bare little reflection the future, but nonetheless Republicans are choosing this moment on the electoral calendar to defect from a White House that until recently held together a remarkable and longstanding majority coalition. While the future is ever unfolding and history rewritten nearly daily, it could well be that President Bush's height of power will be marked from the moment al Qaeda struck on September 11, 2001 to the stumbling and incompetent response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
Of course, the ongoing war in Iraq appears to be an underlying factor to slackening public support for the government in a number of areas, from displeasure over continuing casualties and a lack of a cohesive plan to stabilize the nation to concerns over the use and possible misuse of pre-war intelligence that led to the 2003 invasion.
Republicans in Congress, many of whom must run for reelection in 2006, have finally been prompted to craft their own plan for Iraq in reaction to increased calls for a planned withdrawal or drawdown of an American military presence from the Democrats:
In a sign of increasing unease among Congressional Republicans over the war in Iraq, the Senate is to consider on Tuesday a Republican proposal that calls for Iraqi forces to take the lead next year in securing the nation and for the Bush administration to lay out its strategy for ending the war. …
The proposal on the Iraq war, from Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, and Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, would require the administration to provide extensive new quarterly reports to Congress on subjects like progress in bringing in other countries to help stabilize Iraq. The other appeals related to Iraq are nonbinding and express the position of the Senate.
The plan stops short of a competing Democratic proposal that moves toward establishing dates for a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq. But it is built upon the Democratic approach and makes it clear that senators of both parties are increasingly eager for Iraqis to take control of their country in coming months and open the door to removing American troops.
If the president's poll numbers don't improve very much during the next six months, look for congressional leaders to further distance themselves from the Bush administration. In any event, it looks inevitable that congressional races will pit Republicans who will emphasize local issues, as opposed to Democratic candidates who will try to nationalize the race and tie opponents to the White House. Senator and now Governor-elect John Corzine's successful campaign in New Jersey, which featured television ads that pointed to his opponent as "Bush's choice," may well be a harbinger of the future.
One of the significant repercussions for the still far off 2008 presidential elections could be that there will be no true "Bush heir." Vice President Cheney, beset himself with close ties to his indicted former Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and poll numbers in the low twenties to high teens, has long maintained that he will not run for president. Condoleezza Rice, wildly popular in some circles but closely tied to the Iraq war, has herself declared that she will return to Stanford University. Florida Governor Jeb Bush has also ruled out an '08 run. Bill Frist, the Senate Majority Leader, has his own ethical liabilities and is at this point anchored to the Bush administration's policies.
Short of a rightwing social conservative, such as Senator Sam Brownback, blowing away competition via ruthless force of the evangelical Christian base, the two leading nominees for president within the Republican party are Senator John McCain of Arizona and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Both share the honor of being popular nationally while not being embraced by some factions of the Republican party. McCain's independence from party orthodoxy, once considered a liability, may well turn out to be the central tenet of a potential presidential campaign. Likewise, Giuliani's moderate to liberal stance on social issues will also be closely examined.
Meanwhile, a recent Wall Street Journal poll has New York Senator Hillary Clinton out to a whopping 41% to 14% lead against her closest competition (former Senator and 2004 Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards) in a full field of choices. Al Gore, John Kerry, Wesley Clark, and Joe Biden trailed Edwards. Because of Clinton's continued support for the war in Iraq, some feel that she will be vulnerable on that issue, much as John Kerry was "boxed in" during the 2004 presidential campaign.
John Edward's recent admission that his vote to authorize President Bush to use force in Iraq was wrong will likely have significant ripples throughout the Democratic party:
"I was wrong," Edwards wrote.
"I take responsibility for that mistake. It has been hard to say these words because those who didn't make a mistake - the men and women of our armed forces and their families - have performed heroically and paid a dear price."
Edwards said the intelligence used to support the invasion was flawed.
"The urgent question isn't how we got here but what we do now," Edwards wrote. "We have to give our troops a way to end their mission honorably. That means leaving behind a success, not a failure."
John Edwards may well have put himself in place – philosophically and in terms of policy – to make a serious run at the '08 nomination with such an admission. Outgoing and popular Virginia Governor Mark Warner, another energetic moderate from the South, will be another player in the presidential horserace.