Posted on November 21, 2005 in Washington Watch

The Bush Administration is facing an unprecedented loss of control over the domestic debate on the Iraq war. Having taken a number of direct hits in recent weeks, the Administration is now fighting back in an effort to rebuild a support base. It may, however, be too late.

The President’s problems are not new. They began this summer when Cindy Sheehan, the mother who lost her son in Iraq, began a protest campaign against the war. At first the White House dismissed her challenge, failing to recognize how she was mobilizing press attention and public opposition to the war.

Then, just as the President began to mount a national defense of his handling of the Iraq war, his effort was upended by the Katrina disaster. The Administration’s slow response to that crisis only served to further erode public support. Add to that, a series of other min-scandals and indictments of top White House and Republican leaders and the failed nomination of the President’s counselor to be a Supreme Court Justice and the stage was set for a troubled Presidency.

All of them, coupled with the ever-increasing death toll in Iraq have resulted in shaky public confidence in Bush’s leadership and trust in the honesty of his Presidency.

As Bush’s poll numbers continue to drop (his approval rating is now at 34%, with almost 6 in 10 voters believing that he has not been an “honest President”) and the debate over the handling of the Iraq war continues to grow, Senators and Congressman, both Republicans and Democrats have started to distance themselves from and challenge the Administration’s war policy.

When Democratic Senators like Patrick Leahy (VT), Edward Kennedy and John Kerry (MA), and John Edwards criticized the war, the Administration could ignore them. But last week, the White House war effort received a mild, but still stinging rebuke from the Republicans in the US Senate. Concerned that the public’s frustration with the Administration’s handling of the war might negatively effect their reelection chances in 2006, the Republican leadership in the Senate decided to act, taking the initiative away from the Democrats, the Republicans passed by a 79-19 margin a bill of their own calling on the Bush White House to provide quarterly progress reports on the war effort and declaring that 2006 “should be a period of significant transition from US to Iraqi control of the war.”

As criticism continued to grow, both the President and Vice President struck back in an effort to regain control over the debate. They, and their spokespeople, accused Administration critics of “irresponsibly” letting down US troops, being “dishonest and reprehensible” in “rewriting history”, forsaking Iraq to terrorism and compromising the security of Americans.
As stinging as these criticisms might be, it may very well be too late to turn the tide of the national debate. Evidence Republican Senator Chuck Hagel’s (NE) rebuttal to the White House.

“The Bush Administration must understand,” Hagel noted, “that each American has the right to question our policies in Iraq and should not be demonized for disagreeing with them. To question your government is NOT unpatriotic–to NOT question your government is unpatriotic.”

This was followed by the dramatic criticism put forth by Congressman John Murtha (PA), a leading Democratic hawk and firm supporter of the war, Late last week, Murtha captured headlines and set off a firestorm of debate when he declared the war to be a “flawed policy wrapped in an illusion,” and announced that he had come to the conclusion that “it was time to bring the troops home.”

This will not happen, but what has happened is that the Administration has lost control of the national debate and the ability to set the parameters of how the war proceeds. Losing the public’s confidence is one thing, but when elected officials in Congress, worried about their own positions feel compelled to act, it is clear that the White House is in trouble.

For comments or information, contact James Zogby

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