It now seems likely that George W. Bush will be a one-term President. Much of the country has lost confidence in his leadership. Barring another terrorist attack or the apprehension of Osama bin Laden or extreme electoral shenanigans, Bush will probably go down to defeat in November.
The polls have been trending against Bush for some time now. A Zogby poll, conducted in mid-May, showed Bush's job approval rating down to a record low of 42 percent, a drop of six points from April. Right after toppling Saddam Hussein, Bush was at 75 percent in most polls.
How things change.
In a head-to-head race with John Kerry, Bush lost in the Zogby poll 47 to 42. (Interestingly, with Ralph Nader in the race, the spread was the same, with Nader picking up 3 percent, though almost every other poll shows Nader taking votes from Kerry.)
When asked whether Bush deserved to be reelected, only 41.8 percent told Zogby yes, while 53 percent said it was time for someone new. Equally worrisome for Bush is that 54 percent of those polled thought the United States was headed in the wrong direction, and only 40 percent thought it was headed in the right direction. When voters don't like the direction the country is going in, they are not likely to want to "stay the course," as Bush urges them to do.
The polls are clear about what is dragging Bush down: the Iraq War. Zogby reported 64 percent disapproving of Bush's handling of the war and only 36 percent approving. (CBS had his Iraq approval rating at only 30 percent, and other pollsters had it at around 41 percent but showed his Iraq numbers plummeting in May.)
It's easy to understand why America is turning sour on the war. As of June 2, according to the Pentagon, 811 U.S. soldiers had been killed in Iraq and 4,982 wounded. Phantom weapons of mass destruction and all the hype around them haunt Bush's reputation. And the price tag for the war--more than $100 billion a year--has made many Americans balk.
The torture scandal dogs him, too. A Washington Post/ABC poll of May 25 found that 57 percent of Americans disapproved of the President's handling of this scandal, while only 36 percent approved. Maybe it wasn't clever of Bush to say the nation owes Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "a debt of gratitude."
And despite Bush's synthetic handover of power, there appears to be no end in sight for U.S. troops in Iraq. He vows to keep 138,000 troops there, and he says he'll send more if the generals request it. This increasingly puts him at odds with the American public.
A plurality of Americans actually want all U.S. soldiers to pull out, according to a May Gallup Poll. Here's how those figures break down:
Withdraw all troops: 29 percent.
Send more troops: 25 percent.
Maintain current levels: 24 percent.
Withdraw some troops: 18 percent.
And the number of people who favor withdrawing troops has been steadily rising over the last few months.
Even the economy, which has created more than 900,000 jobs over the last three months, is not helping Bush out dramatically. With oil prices well over $2 a gallon, American consumers are feeling a pinch. The regular reminder at the pumps of how Bush has botched U.S. energy policy will continue to drag him down. A majority of Americans (54 percent) still disapprove of his handling of economic policy, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll in May. And 67 percent believe he cares more about protecting the interests of large corporations than those of ordinary people, the Post found in April.
The old Republican trick of wrapping goodies for the rich in populist paper may be wearing thin.
Bush is losing the support of independents, especially women, who are put off by his positions on abortion and gay rights and the environment. And, as Kevin Phillips writes elsewhere in this issue, part of Bush's Republican base is beginning to crack. The fissures are already noticeable, with Bush losing 8 percentage points among Republicans from April to May, according to the Post.
These poll numbers bear out what we have found impressionistically. More and more, we are hearing about dyed-in-the-wool Republicans who are going to vote Democratic this year, some for the first time in their lives.
Who are these Republicans, and why are they straying?
Well, they are not rightwing fundamentalists, that's for sure. Bush has this group, which constitutes about 15 to 20 percent of the voting public, sewn up, and Karl Rove has been doing some extra stitching just to be sure, pressing Bush to support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Another 20 percent or so is solid for Bush. Some of these are habitual, reflexive Republicans who, as a matter of course, vote party line. Others are ideologues, who despise liberals and are infatuated with the prowess of the Pentagon. Bush can count on this 35 to 40 percent, no matter what.
But Bush seems to be losing support among several other subgroups within the party. Some moderate Republicans may be put off by his anti-environmental policy and his coziness with the religious right. Farsighted business leaders may be concluding that Bush is too reckless a driver of the company SUV. By alienating the rest of the world, Bush may be limiting their ability to make profits in the long term. Isolationist Republicans are appalled by Bush's lust for foreign conquest. And fiscal Republicans are aghast at Bush's runaway deficits, which exceed $500 billion this year and continue to swell into the out years. For a party that had as one of its cornerstones the balanced budget, this is an apostasy.
As John McCain tartly remarked, "I fondly remember a time when real Republicans stood for fiscal responsibility."
Some fiscal conservatives and isolationists may opt for the flinty Ralph Nader rather than vote for Bush. And some big business Republicans may choose Kerry as the more dependable steward of the empire.
Finally, Bush may be losing some support from a traditional stronghold: the military. Some of our career soldiers are furious at the way Bush and Rumsfeld waged the Iraq War and bungled the occupation. And many military families are distraught. They have loved ones on the line for no good reason, and they have to worry every day whether their soldiers will return home alive and whole. Bush has already extended the duty of thousands of soldiers who were expecting to come home soon, and he has denied standard requests for retirement from those who have already put in their time.
On top of that, the family incomes of 30 percent of the reservists are being depleted, as Anne-Marie Cusac reported in our April issue in her article "An Army of Debt." The financial hardship alone of this war is devastating to thousands of families. Some of them will be in no mood to extend the commander in chief's tour of duty. They may choose the Vietnam vet instead.
The Presidency is John Kerry's to lose. But it's unlikely that he'll be able to win simply by being Bush's opponent in a referendum on the last four years. He needs to make an affirmative case for himself, and he has been slow to do so.
He ought to be able to make the sale by offering people a decent job, an increase in the minimum wage, guaranteed health care, a clean environment, Social Security that is inviolate, and free day care and college education for their children. But nothing bold comes out of his mouth.
Instead, on some issues, he is content to say, "Me, too."
On the Iraq War, other than throwing barbs at Bush for the way he got the United States into this debacle, Kerry has a position that is nearly identical to Bush's. Get U.N. approval, stay the course, and leave the door open for more troops.
On the issue of Palestine/Israel, Kerry has left no distance whatsoever between his position and Bush's. Kerry has endorsed Sharon's assassination policy, he has echoed Bush's blessing for Sharon's unilateral moves on Gaza and the West Bank, and he has rejected discussions with Yasser Arafat.
On the economy, Kerry is keen on simply rehiring the old Bill Clinton team, led by Robert Rubin, which sided time and again with Wall Street over Main Street. One of the first economic proposals Kerry unveiled was a tax break for corporations. And he has "pared earlier proposals to expand college-tuition subsidies and provide aid to state governments, to help achieve the higher priority of halving the federal budget deficit within four years," The Wall Street Journal notes.
Yes, Kerry has distinguished himself from Bush on the environment, on women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, civil liberties, income taxes, and the rights of organized labor. And he has offered a peek at a vision of a more multilateralist foreign policy, one that concerns itself with human rights and international law.
For many liberals and progressives, that's sufficient; they feel such an urgency to get Bush out of the White House before it's too late that they are willing to sign on the dotted line right now--and to work their tails off for Bush's defeat.
Some on the left, however, are not comfortable in Kerry's tepid bath. They prefer the bracing water of Nader or the Greens. Nader, who is polling anywhere between 2 and 7 percent, is likely to recede as a factor in this election, however. As the campaign draws to an end, the tug for Kerry will be extraordinarily powerful; few people on the left will be able to withstand it.
By and large, Kerry seems to feel he can win with the slogan, "I'm not a wacko." And as he drifts further toward the middle, he is desperately trying to assure the Washington establishment that he can run the show better than Bush can.
That may--or may not--be enough to get Kerry elected. But it won't be enough to enable him to govern with a mandate for fundamental progressive change.
What Kerry fails to note is that the American public is not only turning against Bush, it is seeking progressive solutions. Polls show most Americans favor universal health care, increased spending on public education, a rise in the minimum wage, a crackdown on corporate crime and pollution, and nuclear disarmament.
With a little courage, a Presidential candidate could go beyond the "Beat Bush" bandwagon and ride this populist wave to a better future.