Posted on April 12, 2004 in Washington Watch

These days, a deeply divided America is caught up watching two dramas playing out simultaneously on their TV screens. On the one hand, there is the increasingly disturbing account of the accelerating conflict in Iraq, which suggests an unraveling of U.S. control in that country. On the other hand, there is the unraveling of the public confidence in the Bush Administration’s leadership not only in Iraq, but, more significantly, in the war on terror.

This unraveling began two weeks ago with the media blitz that accompanied the release of former White House Counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies. In a number of major television interviews and in sensational testimony before the commission convened to examine the government’s performance before and after the 9/11 attacks, Clarke made a number of damaging charges against the Bush Administration.

It is Clarke’s contention that for eight months, the Bush Administration, at the highest levels, failed to focus on the terror threat posed by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Even after 9/11, Clarke argues, the Administration lost focus by shifting its attention to Iraq, which he maintains is a divisionary effort that has weakened the international campaign against terror.

Unlike earlier books critical of this Administration, Against all Enemies caught a media and political wave. The book remains on top of the best-seller list and, for two weeks now, Clarke has been a fixture on television and the nation’s front-pages.

Because Clarke represents a challenge to what has been the Bush Administration’s strong suit–“the President’s decisive stand against terror”–the White House has been forced to wage a vigorous counterattack. In just the first few days after Clarke’s testimony before the 9/11 commission, Administration and Republican spokespersons made over 200 television appearances rebutting Clarke’s charges and questioning his integrity and character.

All of this only fed the Clarke story. And because this story wouldn’t die, President Bush was forced to back down and allow his National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice to testify in public session before the 9/11 Commission.

Though obviously intelligent and determined in making her case, Rice’s well-watched appearance before the Commission, far from ending the “gathering storm”, has only added fuel to its expanding flames.

And so it is that during this Easter week the nation’s televisions are alternating between two competing stories of crises facing the White House. There are both new questions about what the Administration did or did not know or did or did not do about the terrorist threat, and scenes of expanding violence in Iraq. None of this is good news for the Bush Administration, which, just one month ago, confidently began its reelection advertising campaign challenging the leadership and competence of Democratic nominee John Kerry.

But given the deep and almost insurmountable divide that characterizes the American political scene today, the effect of all this bad news remains somewhat limited.

The public now gives President Bush an overall negative job performance rating and when asked to rate Bush’s performance on fighting terrorism, polls show that Americans are almost evenly divided with 52% giving the President a positive rating and 48% a negative rating. This represents a drop of over 10% in the last month and a 30% decline over the President’s rating two years ago.

These divisions, however, are partisan based. This can be seen in the responses given to almost every question. For example, when asked to rate the President’s performance on terrorism, Republicans give him an 88% to 12% net positive rating while Democrats give Bush a 23% to 76% net negative rating. When asked to choose between Clarke’s position that “the Administration ignored warnings about terrorism because they were too focused on Iraq” and Rice’s position that the “Administration was focused on terrorism from its earliest days” Democrats agree with Clarke 72% to 17% while Republicans agree with Rice 81% to 12%. And despite a massive White House campaign to discredit Clarke, a plurality of the public still gives him a positive rating of 44% to 36%. This is, of course, divided along partisan lines with Democrats approving of Clarke 68% to 10% and Republicans disapproving by a margin of 16% to 67%.

So the net effect of all this negative press appears to be an erosion of confidence among some Democrats and Independents in President Bush’s job performance. But it has not significantly diminished his Republican support.

Polls also show the same degree of eroding public support for the Iraq war but it too is along partisan lines. So that in the race for the White House, President Bush and his Democratic challenger John Kerry remain in a dead heat in almost every national poll.

What all of this reaffirms is the fact that despite the continuing decline in the public’s support for the what the Administration had been touting as the President’s strongest leadership quality, Bush’s reelection effort will be a close and tough fight to the finish.

Unless new revelations weaken the President’s core Republican support base or shake loose the almost evenly divided independent voters, it appears that crises of any sort will serve only to harden the resolve of the two sides in this very partisan environment.

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