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How Will the Iraq War Influence American Politics? - 2003-03-25


MR. MORALES: As is usually the case when U.S. forces enter into battle, Americans tend to rally behind the President. Since the war began, President Bush's public approval rating here at home has risen from about 60 to some 70%.

But how does that translate into domestic political clout for the President? And will it last?

Joining me to examine what the Iraqi war might mean in terms of U.S. politics are: David Keene, Chairman of the American Conservative Union -- the nation's oldest and largest grassroots conservative political organization. And, Will Marshall -- President of the Progressive Policy Institute, which seeks to define and promote liberal politics here in the United States.

Will Marshall, let me begin with you. How would you assess President Bush's popularity with the American people right now?

MR. MARSHALL: I think the President has convinced the American people that he is decisive and that he is not plagued by doubts and ambivalence when it comes to recognizing or identifying threats to the United States and acting to preempt them. He has gotten that across very clearly, and I think you see the results in the kind of strong confidence the public continues to express in his leadership on security issues.

It's very different when you turn to the economic and domestic side of the ledger. But I do believe that there were rising doubts leading up, in the days before this war started, about this president as a diplomatic leader. After all, the President of the United States has to be the Commander-in-Chief, but he is also the head of state. And the head of state for the United States means that you have to be the chief diplomatist. And I don't think Americans believe that this administration has done that job particularly well.

MR. MORALES: David Keene, let me put that same question to you.

MR. KEENE: I think Will is mostly right. I think people have faith in this President and his ability to recognize national security problems. It is true that there was a drop in his approval and popularity in the days just prior to launching the shooting war on Iraq, but I think that was a result of the fact that people were upset with the delay.

They knew the war was coming. They supported it. They supported the President doing what he had to do. They didn't necessarily want to go to war, but they thought the whole charade at the United Nations and the playing around with France went on too long. And I think there was a growing attitude of "let's get it over with."

I don't think that, as it played out, that the President was harmed domestically by, as Will sees, a sense of him not being able to play the diplomatic game as adroitly as they might like. Because I think the blame was not placed on him, except to the extent that we maybe played it too long against some people that had other motives and were operating on other agendas that we couldn't get into line with our own.

MR. MORALES: Dave Keene, let me stay with you for just a moment. Does this mean that perhaps there will an end to the partisan wrangling in Congress we've seen over the past few days?

MR. KEENE: I think that you're going to have a decrease in partisan wrangling for a few days, but that's about all. The fact of the matter is that this country remains partisanly and ideologically divided. And if you looked at the poll data in the run-up to the war with Iraq, the most determinative factor in whether you supported or didn't support what the President wanted to do was whether you were identifying yourself as a Republican or a Democrat.

I think that the days when partisanship ended at the water's edge have long passed us, for better or ill. And I suspect that while everybody is going to back off and naturally throw their support to the Commander-in-Chief, he won't get much of a honeymoon from his partisan opponents on the Hill for this or for anything else.

MR. MARSHALL: Yes, I think that's right. This remains a very polarized country. And I think that the White House strategy since September 11 has really not aimed at changing that -- on the domestic side of the agenda, with another big tax cut. And from the Democratic point of view, this is not a president who has been trying to govern from the center out and build broad coalitions, but one, rather, who thinks he has got the advantage, or he and his party have the advantage. And wants to polarize the political situation in a way that shows that the Republicans have the whip hand. I think that's the impression the Democrats have.

So, I agree with David that we will likely see a suspension of partisan hostilities for as long as there is fighting going on in Iraq, but I don't really think it will change. And David made another important point. We're in a whole new era in international relations in this country.

The President has taken us into this "brave new world" of preemption, or preventive war. And as many have pointed out, this war in Iraq is not one that has been thrust upon us by some attack or even an imminent threat, as that is normally understood. It has been a war that we have decided we needed to undertake for a variety of reasons. But as many people have pointed out, it has been a war of choice. That is something new, and it will take some getting used to. And I think we are going to continue to debate that even after the fighting ends.

MR. MORALES: We have a few seconds left, and I would like to ask each of you, beginning with Will Marshall: We are a little more than a year-and-a half away from a U.S. presidential election, do you have any feeling for how this war might impact that vote?

MR. MARSHALL: It's really impossible to say now, in the midst of a war, because the outcome will, I think, may be the most important test for George Bush. By the outcome, I don't mean just the military outcome; I mean the outcome of the reconstruction job that has to happen in Iraq, the creation of a decent representative government, which this administration has promised. So, not knowing that, it's hard for me to say.

But I will just point out that, historically, even victory in war has not been a guarantee of victory in the next presidential election. Just ask this President's father [George H. W. Bush], who triumphed in the Gulf War and then went on to lose to Bill Clinton in 1992. And ask Winston Churchill and other leaders, who found out that even despite their wartime successes, when the next election rolled around, people were really looking ahead and not backward.

MR. MORALES: And Dave Keene, the last word to you.

MR. KEENE: I think Will is right about that. Democratic peoples are not necessarily grateful peoples. They're looking for what you're going to do tomorrow. And I think that's one of the reasons that Bush has, even in the midst of the run-up to this war, spent a good time thinking about the agenda that he sees and wants domestically. Because he was there when his father was perceived as really not paying attention or caring much about what happened here [in the US], as opposed to what happened abroad.

I think if the war turns out well for Bush, that's fine and it will give him a good chance. Obviously, if it turns out to be a disaster, that's a different thing. But the next election is not going to be decided probably on the question of our performance in Iraq or whether there is a general assembly in Iraq. It's probably going to be, as most presidential elections are, determined by a broad mix of issues, dominated by domestic concerns.

MR. MORALES: Gentlemen, we'll have to leave it there. I would like to thank my guests: Will Marshall, President of the Progressive Policy Institute; and David Keene, Chairman of the American Conservative Union.

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