Tom Engelhardt: An American Tipping Point?





[Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has just come out in paperback.]

... Polls are, it might be said, what's left of American democracy. Privately run, often for profit or advantage, they nonetheless are as close as we come these days -- actual elections being what they are -- to the expression of democratic opinion, serially, week after week. Everyone who matters in and out of Washington and in the media reads them as if life itself were at stake. They drive behavior and politics. Fear, too, is a poll-driven phenomenon. Not surprisingly then, it was the moment late last spring when presidential approval ratings fell decisively below the 50% mark and looked to be heading for 40%, that the White House took anxious note and so, no less important, did a previously cowed media. Somewhere in that period, the fear factor, right in the administration's hands, was transformed into a feeling fearful factor. As I've written elsewhere, faced with the mother of a dead soldier on their doorstep, all the President's men blinked and the Camp Casey fiasco followed. Soon after, before hurricane Cindy could even blow out of town, hurricane Katrina blew in and the President's ratings headed for freefall. In just the last month, they look as if they had been shoved over a small cliff, dipping in the latest Harris and Wall Street Journal polls to an almost unheard of 34% (only five points above Richard Nixon's at his Watergate nadir).

The poll numbers which once gave the administration's fear factor meaning have simply evaporated -- as have any figures which might indicate that this administration is capable of staunching its own wounds. Emboldening media and political opposition in Washington, such figures give Murtha-like cover to behavior that not long ago would have been unthinkable. A record 60% of Americans surveyed in the most recent USA Today poll, including one in four Republicans, said "the war wasn't ‘worth it.' One in five Republicans said the invasion of Iraq was a mistake." Those who felt things were "going well" for the country as a whole dropped nine percentage points in a month.

Democrats long ago fled the ranks of presidential supporters, as more recently have independents; now moderate Republicans are beginning to peel away too. According to Tom Raum of the Associated Press,"[Bush's] approval on handling Iraq fell from 87 percent among all Republicans in November 2004 to 78 percent this month. Among Republican women, from 88 percent a year ago to 73 percent now. Among independents, approval on Iraq fell from 49 percent in November 2004 to 33 percent now." If you want a figure that, from the administration's viewpoint, offers a frightening glimpse into a possible future, consider the 79% of Americans who believe I. Lewis Libby's indictment is "of importance to the nation"; this, despite Republican claims that the grounds for indicting were insignificant, and a new Libby defense fund made up of Republican high-rollers and assorted neocons.

In other words, replace the still emotionally charged issues of the war in Iraq and the President's actions, where, at 34%-40%, a bedrock base of support remains more or less intact, with a less charged ethics-in-government issue and that vaunted Rock of Gibraltar shatters. This is the previously inconceivable future so many Republican politicians suddenly fear.

Just for the heck of it, throw in another factor -- "intensity" -- and you have an even more volatile picture, given the lack of positive, potentially mobilizing news on the domestic and foreign horizons. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post suggests that the polling figures are even worse than they look because intensity of feeling on the war issue is now "on the side of the war's opponents." He adds:

"The findings on the strength of feelings about the war were matched by the intensity of feelings about Bush himself: Only 20 percent of those surveyed said they strongly approved of the overall job Bush was doing, while 47 percent strongly disapproved. A president who has always played to his base finds that his base is steadily shrinking."

In other words, doubt and demoralization are setting in -- a political rot that can do untold damage. Given how many independents and moderate Republicans who once supported the war have changed their minds, the scathing attacks on Democrats for mind-changing on the war may not prove a winning strategy either. They may, as Raum comments, "backfire on Republicans."

Can we trace Bush's polling near-collapse to its origins anywhere? In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine under the eerie title, "The Iraq Syndrome" (subscription only), John Mueller, an expert on how wars affect presidencies, offers a canny, cool-eyed interpretation of changing American opinion on Iraq. He tracks polling data on the three sustained wars -- Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq -- the U.S. has fought in the last half-century-plus where we took more than 300 casualties.

All three show approximately the same polling pattern: broad enthusiasm at the outset, a relatively quick and steep falloff in support, followed by steady erosion thereafter from which no long-term presidential recovery seems possible (certainly not via heightened rhetoric). In all three wars, as support fell, pro-withdrawal sentiment rose. Though some experts link this pattern to an American "defeat-phobia," Mueller points out that, in cases like Lebanon in the Reagan years and Somalia in the Clinton era, Americans have been quite capable of swallowing withdrawal and defeat (of a sort) without making the presidents involved pay any significant political cost.

The crucial factor in loss of support for each of these wars, Mueller insists, is a growing casualty list and not just any casualties either -- only American ones. (The fact that "vastly more" Iraqis have died than all the victims of "all international terrorists in all of history" matters little, he observes, in American popular judgments on the war.) What makes Iraq stand out in this list of three "is how much more quickly support has eroded in the case of Iraq. By early 2005, when combat deaths were around 1,500, the percentage of respondents who considered the Iraq war a mistake -- over half -- was about the same as the percentage who considered the war in Vietnam a mistake at the time of the 1968 Tet offensive, when nearly 20,000 soldiers had already died."

If Mueller's right, then the steady drip of American casualties -- many less dead and many more wounded than in Korea and Vietnam, in part because of improved medical care and triage techniques -- has seeped deeply into American consciousness. This seems so, despite the administration's careful attempt to keep returning bodies and individual funerals out of sight and so out of mind; despite the fact that the American dead -- 60 soldiers in the first 19 days of October -- have largely been kept off the front-pages of American papers and photos of dead Americans off television (where dead Iraqis can regularly be seen). Short of massive draw-downs of American forces in Iraq, there is no casualty end in sight for this administration; and drawing down ground forces (while substituting air power for them), as Richard Nixon learned in his "Vietnamization" program, only solves a home-front problem at the cost of creating staggering problems on the war front.

For an administration still fighting "withdrawal" with all its strength, this may prove a problem with no exit -- further casualties acting as a motor propelling the unhappiness that changes more minds and pushes falling polling figures ever downward, propelling unease about the country which only leads to escalating casualty figures of another kind -- those growing defections from the ranks of your core political supporters. ...


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