Archive for Friday, January 27, 2006

Events may trump rhetoric

January 27, 2006


In recent weeks, President Bush has sought to shape the political environment for Tuesday's State of the Union speech, accentuating the positive about his economic and Iraq policies and defending domestic eavesdropping.

Similarly, the Democrats have stressed issues they hope will define this year's congressional elections, citing the central role of Republicans in the growing Capitol Hill scandal, an alleged threat to civil liberties by Bush and the mishandling of issues from Iraq to New Orleans.

In the end, the political winner will be the side that sells its version to the American people. That depends both on the underlying facts and how they are presented.

In a sense, Bush and the Republicans have an edge, as in 2002 and 2004. Their emphasis on national security has a powerful appeal in the post-9-11 era, and nuanced arguments are harder to make than simplistic ones. But the facts underlying some of these issues could undercut their rhetoric and pose real problems for the GOP this November.

In many ways, the 2006 political turf appears unfavorable for Bush and the Republicans.

The president's job approval remains below 50 percent. Doubts about the war in Iraq remain substantial. The plan to pay drug costs for seniors had a rocky start. And Americans correctly believe the lobbying scandal involves more Republicans than Democrats.

Surveys suggest more voters plan to vote Democratic than Republican in November. But analysts who study individual races see likely Democratic gains falling short of the numbers needed to regain one or both houses. On the other hand, some polling results buoy Republicans.

The public, given a choice between Bush's vow to stay the course in Iraq or the advice of many Democrats to set a deadline for withdrawal, favors the president's position. The argument of many top Democrats, critical of his handling but against immediate withdrawal, is hard to explain.

The Democrats aren't likely to benefit from opposing Judge Samuel Alito, except among their own members. Polls show a solid majority favors his confirmation.

And while polling on Bush's decision to bypass judicial authority in authorizing domestic eavesdropping of terrorist suspects depends somewhat on the wording of the question, a majority seems to favor steps tied directly to the war on terrorism.

At last weekend's Republican National Committee meeting, top GOP strategists previewed their arguments for the coming campaign. While they posed some complex issues in potentially misleading black-and-white terms, it's easy to see the political appeal in their arguments.

Karl Rove compared Bush's position in Iraq with "a loud chorus of Democrats who want us to cut and run"; contrasted Republicans who want to renew the Patriot Act with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's premature statement that Democrats "killed the Patriot Act"; and accused Democrats of making "wild and reckless and false charges against this president" on eavesdropping, though many Republicans have also been critical.

But those are easier arguments to make than ones that combine criticism of his handling of Iraq with support for the goal, that favor a revised Patriot Act instead of an unchanged one or that require use of designated legal channels to authorize eavesdropping over a unilateral presidential edict.

Interestingly, the strongest Democratic argument is the equally simplistic condemnation of a "culture of corruption" stemming from the GOP hold on Congress plus the White House.

So far, they haven't done a very good job of explaining how this produced policies that could create more problems than they solve.

But time may be on their side if the main victims of the scandal prove to be Republicans, the situation in Iraq doesn't improve and the recent stock market dip is a harbinger of economic problems.

In the end, events in the real world may have more to do with November's results than all the political rhetoric in the world.

Following up on Cuba: Last week's column criticized the Bush administration for barring Cuba from the World Baseball Classic in March. On Friday, the administration wisely reversed itself. Unfortunately, its other Cuban policies remain unchanged.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.


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