December 21, 2005
Bush Ending 2005 in Upturn, Helped by Events, Enemies
By Mort Kondracke

President Bush has executed a positive turn-around in his political fortunes through a combination of forceful advocacy, fortunate events and help from his critics.

His average approval rating in polls compiled by bottomed out at 37 percent just prior to Veterans Day. Now, it's 44.8 percent-not great, but heading (for him) in the right direction.

The reversal seems to be attributable to his vigorous defense of his Iraq policy, plus a decline in gasoline prices and favorable economic news and evidence that Democrats are mired in defeatism about the war.

He's also been aided by fading memories about the factors that depressed his ratings in the first place--the Katrina hurricane, the indictment of White House aide Lewis Libby and $3 a gallon gasoline.

Bush's nationally televised "fireside chat" on Iraq Sunday, following a successful election in that country last week, should permit him to finish out 2005 at or just below his 48 percent RCP average at the end of 2004, controversy over "domestic spying" on terrorist targets notwithstanding.

Bush has some explaining to do about why he decided to skirt the law prohibiting warrantless National Security Agency monitoring of domestic phone calls rather than asking Congress to change it.

Congress should conduct a wider inquiry into Bush's whole attitude toward executive power. Does Bush agree with former Deputy Attorney Gen. John Yoo's 2001 memo holding that no statute passed by Congress "can place any limits on the president's determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response or the method, timing and nature of the response"?

In his press conference Monday, Bush airly dismissed a question suggesting that Bush believed he has "unchecked power" to fight the war on terrorism. But there is a long record of such assertions, limited only by the courts so far, to imprison and try enemy combatants and even limit access to presidential records.

It seems defensible to me to monitor the U.S. end of international calls between terrorist suspects without a court order if time is crucial. Bush is not tapping the phones of war protesters Cindy Sheehan or Michael Moore, after all. But could he? The Yoo opinion suggests he could do anything he likes in the name of fighting terrorism. Congress should establish what limits, if any, the administration accepts.

But my guess is that Bush will only gain popularity points as a result of the wiretap disclosures and a Democrat-led filibuster of the Patriot Act. To average Americans, he'll be seen as a "strong leader" trying to defend them, rather than as a menace to civil liberties. The filibusterers, in any event, have not made a case for their actions.

Democrats definitely have helped Bush recover by calling the Iraq war unwinnable, as party chairman Howard Dean did, and by recommending immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, as did Rep. John Murtha (Pa.) followed by House leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

According to the Dec. 15 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, voters oppose immediate troop withdrawals by a margin of 68 percent to 27 percent.

According to a Fox News poll released last week, voters disagree with Dean by a margin of 51 percent to 38 percent and say, by 57 percent to 12 per cent, that U.S. and Iraqi forces will prevail over insurgents.

That poll, released prior to Bush's Sunday "chat," showed that only 25 percent of voters said they had a better understanding of Bush's war policy after his first four speeches on the subject. Fifty-seven percent said they did not.

On the other hand, by 37 percent to 35 percent, they said they trusted Republicans on the war over Democrats, a reversal of recent trends.

Bush's Sunday address was a concise and effective statement of his war aims, combining rare expressions of humility with a stark description of the stakes involved in the struggle, assurances that "we are winning" and jabs at "defeatism."

In his four earlier Iraq speeches beginning on Veterans Day, Bush acknowledged that his administration had adjusted tactics in Iraq. But on Sunday he went further, admiting that the aftermath of major combat operations has been "more difficult than we expected."

When Bush was in the polling doldrums this summer, outsiders advised him to shake up his administration and make a speech to the country admitting errors. He didn't follow the first bit, but did the second, in his own fashion.

However, he also argued his own case forcefully, all but silencing Democrats who accused him of "lying" about pre-war intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and rebutting charges that he has "no strategy" for the war.

On Sunday, he spelled out a concise goal: "a democratic Iraq that can defend itself, that will never again be a safe haven for terrorists and that will serve as model of freedom for the Middle East."

Where Bush has previously concentrated on the idealistic purpose of Middle East democracy, he starkly spelled out the consequences of "pulling out of Iraq before our work is done."

"We would abandon our Iraqi friends-and signal to the world that America cannot be trusted to keep its word. We would undermine the morale of our troops... Cause tyrants in the Middle East to laugh at our failed resolve... Hand Iraq over to enemies who have pledged to attack us..." and make an emboldened world terrorist movement more dangerous than ever.

"To retreat before victory," he said, "would be an act of recklessness and dishonor-and I will not allow it."

A true surge in Bush's popularity won't occur until he begins withdrawing troops from Iraq in substantial numbers. A top U.S. official there told me that was possible in 2006, but Bush reiterated that he won't be bound by artificial timetables."Our forces in Iraq are on the road to victory-and that is the road that will take them home," he said.

Bush has bet his presidency-and his place in history-on a favorable outcome in Iraq. Whether he ultimately succeeds or fails, it's clear he's ending the first year of his second term determined to see the mission through.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.

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