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The Political Costs of Iraq

By Tom Bevan

Sunday marked the three year anniversary of the liberation of Iraq. Almost without exception, Iraq has been the dominant issue in American politics since the middle of 2002 when Congress began debating the authorization for the use of force. Iraq played a substantial role in the historic results of the 2002 midterm elections and was arguably the decisive factor in the 2004 Presidential race. It will almost certainly figure prominently in U.S. elections for a third time this November.

But while Iraq played to the benefit of President Bush and Republicans in the last two election cycles, the war is now almost universally regarded as a political liability. The public's patience over the pace of progress in Iraq has thinned noticeably over the last sixteen months, and the continued violence and a lack of any foreseeable exit on the horizon has eroded public confidence in the mission and in our ability to secure a positive outcome.

But just how much of a drag is Iraq politically for President Bush and Republicans? Consider these numbers:

- On the question of which Congressional party can do a better job of handling the situation in Iraq, a Gallup poll taken last month showed Democrats leading Republicans by eight points (48-40). That represents a 32-point swing in favor of Democrats on the question since January, 2003.

- In ten CBS News surveys taken before the liberation of Iraq in early 2003, the public approved of President Bush's handling of the situation by an average margin of twenty-nine points (62 approve, 33 disapprove). In the latest CBS News poll released last night, those numbers are completely reversed: only 33% approve of Bush's handling of Iraq while 61% disapprove.

If those numbers aren't bad enough in and of themselves, the public's dissatisfaction with the handling of Iraq, combined with missteps by the White House on the Dubai port deal and, to a lesser degree, the response to Hurricane Katrina, has spilled over and eroded traditional GOP advantages on terrorism and national security:

- According to Gallup, in January 2003 President Bush enjoyed a 45-point net approval advantage on the question of his handling of the issue of terrorism (71-26). In the last poll taken before the 2004 election, Bush's advantage stood at +16 points (57-41). Last month when Gallup asked voters whether they approved of the job President Bush is doing in fighting terrorism, the advantage turned into a disadvantage: only 47% approved, while 49% disapproved.

- Not surprisingly, the Republican Party has suffered along with its leader: according to Gallup, the GOP's advantage over Democrats on handling the issue of terrorism has shrunk by twenty-four points over the last three years. Voters now prefer Republicans to Democrats on the issue of terrorism by only four points (45-41).

- An AP-Ipsos poll released last week showed Democrats tied with Republicans (41-41) when voters were asked, "Who do you trust to do a better job of protecting the country?" This mirrors a Rasmussen poll taken in February at the height of the Dubai port frenzy that showed voters trusting Democrats in Congress more than President Bush on national security (43-41).

A Republican pollster described the results of the AP-Ipsos poll by saying, "These numbers are scary. We've lost every advantage we've ever had." Indeed, the fact that Democrats seem to have come close to neutralizing long standing Republican advantages on terrorism and national security is a significant development, and one of the serious political costs stemming from the public's continued dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq.

Republicans can be thankful for two things: first, that the election this November is an off-year which lessens the chance of the impact of Iraq being nationalized. Second, that public dissatisfaction with Iraq is greater in the abstract than it is when applied to individual races. Most Congressional districts are safe havens for incumbents, and even in competitive Senate races support for the war in Iraq won't necessarily be a big negative for Republican candidates, especially when paired directly against a Democratic alternative.

It's too early to tell how the issue may manifest itself this November, but Republicans have every right to be nervous that the political costs of the war in Iraq may come due.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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