Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Iraq War as a motivator in the election

The Bush administration's rapid dropping of Secretary Rumsfeld the day after the election suggests an administration in disarray that misread the election results.

Clearly, the pundits and the pollsters and the loon left believe that the prime motivator in the electoral loss that the GOP suffered on Tuesday was caused by concern about the war in Iraq. I think that is incorrect. When you start out with a 43% approval rating as president you are pretty sure that the GOP will not be a strong force in an election. 61% of Americans disapprove of the way Bush is handling the war in Iraq (according to the Newsweek poll). But here is the rub. The pollsters believe that the 61% is monolithic. I do not think it is. Any democracy has little stomach for any war. Look at polling during even WWII and as the war continued support for the war began to fall - not to the levels of the Bush era but it fell none-the-less. I would argue that the 61% can be divided into at least two groups - some percentage of the voters disagree with the tactics of the war but agree with the notion of confronting the terrorists. A tiny percentage of voters might even suggest that we should pursue the war objectives more aggressively. But the notion that the war was THE motivator for the election is simply false. If one looks at the GOP members who lost on Tuesday and were the most aggressive in opposing the war, almost two thirds of them lost. Clearly, if you were GOP and against the war, you fared worse than the rest of the party. So in my mind there was something else going on. In several cases a GOP opponent to the war lost to a slightly more supportive democrat.

I believe the motivator of this electorate was Congress. In the most poisonus atmosphere in the US (Rhode Island) Bush had a 22% approval rating while the Congress had 15%. The national numbers were not much better. National polling was similar - in one poll 74% of Americans thought Congress was out of touch. That made Bushs' 43% positively stratospheric.

What caused that change? In my opinion, the factors I listed the day of the election caused it, namely a perception (which I believe was correct) that Congress was burdened by corruption (Abramhoff and earmarks) and a tin ear (the silly efforts this summer to bring up hot button issues rather than to pass legislation). The Public Choice analysis of politicians seeking rents from the voters, was especially pronounced in this cycle. The voters believed, and in this case I think correctly, that Congress was not in it for improvements in the country but for narrow and personal motives. That caused some perceptual changes which are significant. For example, according to the Rasmussen poll "Americans today still hold views similar to those that brought Reagan to the White House—61% believe that tax hikes are bad for the economy. Just 16% believe they help the economy." But surprisingly in this cycle the advantage that the GOP had on this issue, dating to the Reagan era has faded pretty significantly. That was an area where the GOP fought hard to support an area which the voters overwhelmingly favor, but because of the perception on corruption and dilly-dallying they lost a clear advantage.

Here is a good example in my own area. Two congressmen next to each other Dan Lungren and John Doolittle come from similar districts in terms of registration. (If anything, Doolittle's district is a bit more heavily GOP.) Lungren went back to Congress and one of the first campaigns he fought for was to end earmarks. Doolittle was right in the middle of the defects of Congress - he was tied to Abramhoff, his wife was (is) collecting a commission for all of the money raised in his behalf, etc. Both candidates were equally supportive of the war and both candidates had an opponent who was against the war and used the war as a major issue. On Tuesday, Doolittle squeaked by with about 49% of the vote. Lungren received almost 60%. Clearly, the difference was not the war but the perceptions about Congress.

That brings me to the Bush action to oust his Secretary of Defense. Bush acted quickly, after the election, to throw Rummy under the train. In my opinion his move made no political sense. I am not a fan of Mr. Rumsfeld. But if the President thought Rumsfeld was a liability, what would the effect of a change in the position had on the election had he done it before rather than after? Doing the job after the election makes the President look like he is panicking. In this case I think he is responding to the wrong stimuli.

The California governor faced a similar problem a year ago and yet won re-election by almost 60%. (Even with that percentage he seemingly had no coattails - the one GOP candidate who won statewide had an opponent who was damaged goods. California is still a pretty blue state, in most ways.) The Governor learned that the voters kind of liked his willingness to get the legislature to go along with him. Although I have not seen polls on it, I suspect the California legislature's perceptions have improved along with the Governor's.

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