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Democrats, don't mess with Bush

By Godfrey Sperling / April 16, 2002



WASHINGTON

A NUMBER OF questions swirl around the president these days.

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Q: Has the public's perception of how President Bush has dealt with the turmoil in the Mideast eroded his overall strong support?

A: Although there has been criticism of Mr. Bush's timing in intervening in the Israeli-Palestine struggle, he still retains his popularity. Polls show that Americans generally comprehend the complexity of the Mideast situation and tend not to fault the president for not providing easy answers for a situation for which no one seems to have answers. A CNN poll finds that 7 out of 10 OK'd Bush's efforts to attain a Middle East peace.

Q: Is it still risky for the Democrats to fault this wartime president?

A: Yes. We all saw the public's negative response to intimations by Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle and Robert Byrd that Bush was moving the US into a quagmire with no exit strategy.

That was before the Mideast exploded. But I think the Democrats will still have to walk on eggshells during the coming political campaign, lest they be perceived by the public as not supporting this president in time of war. I can still hear a leading Democratic spokesman – James Carville – expressing frustration over this situation at a Monitor breakfast: "It isn't fair; it isn't fair," he shouted.

Q: But if the war goes on into next year and beyond, will Bush be able to retain his popularity?

A: With this unique kind of global war going on, mostly beneath the surface, Bush must deal with the possibility that the public's interest in carrying on the war will wane and, as a consequence, he will lose the support of the American people.

But I think he will keep this support. He possesses a quality that helped draw and then hold the public behind Franklin Roosevelt in World War II: FDR was perceived as being courageous. And so is Bush. John Steinbeck writes in his short, nonfiction piece, "A Primer on the '30s," that while Roosevelt was called many names by his critics, "no one ever thought or said he was afraid. Furthermore, he spread his fearlessness about among the whole people."

That's what Bush has been doing. The public sees a gutsy president who is relentlessly taking on the terrorists in a battle that must be won. And that will keep the people behind him.

Q: How did Roosevelt fare in the first general election after he became president?

A: It's quite unusual for a new president's party to gain seats in the first congressional election after he takes office. Yet FDR did it back in 1934.

So, might Bush also pick up seats? I doubt it. Roosevelt's political strength from the moment he moved into the presidency came from the vigorous actions he had taken to try to end the Great Depression. During his campaign and his early months as president, he had put together a powerful New Deal coalition of voters – laborers, farmers, progressives, women, intellectuals, the needy, and others. Only later did he add to his political clout when he became a wartime president.

Bush clearly hasn't drawn together a voter coalition. His wartime popularity will give him some coattails in the coming elections. But he'll do well just to help hold that slim advantage in the House and not lose any more seats in the Senate.

Q: Finally, how much can Bush do in the coming political campaign without looking like a president who quite crassly is trying to use his war support to achieve political gain?

A: Bush must be very, very careful. He's getting close to stepping over the line into what is unacceptable conduct for a wartime president with all the fundraisers he's attending. If he tries to get the voters to defeat one of his opponents in Congress – well, it probably won't work. Just as it didn't work for FDR when he experimented in that direction. And he never did it again.

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