From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, and Huma Zaidi
As we near the end of the current Bush presidency, with Iraq overshadowing the rest of his agenda and endangering his legacy, the question is no longer whether he'll be able to accomplish big things during these final two years. Poll after poll shows him lacking the influence to force his legislative priorities through, at least not without considerable compromising with the Democratic majority. The question going forward is whether Iraq will inflict long-term damage on his party's standing on national security, similar to how the Monica Lewinsky scandal wrought lasting damage on the Democratic party on moral values.
The Democratic party's hangover on values from the Clinton era lingers even today. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Republicans retaining a 9-point advantage on the question of which party is better at promoting strong moral values -- though that's a far cry from their years of double-digit leads, presumably because Iraq is weighing them down on every issue.
Even now, with a majority of the public opposed to the war and to Bush's proposed troop increase, the GOP is still the preferred party when it comes to fighting the war on terrorism, though again, their advantage is narrower today than in the past five years. But Iraq clearly has damaged the party's brand on national security, and as with Bill Clinton's handling of his personal scandals, the public and lawmakers of Bush's own party increasingly see Bush as steering the party off a cliff on the issue.
For some Republicans in Congress, the realization dawned when Bush ousted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld immediately after the midterm elections, rather than before, when (they believe) it might have spared them from some of their many losses. For others, the idea has taken hold more recently as Bush and Vice President Cheney have continued to insist that they don't need Congress' approval to send more troops to war.
While a handful of high-profile Republicans like Sens. Chuck Hagel and John Warner are distancing themselves from Bush's policies, most of the party's rank-and-file will sink or swim with Bush on Iraq no matter how they try to separate themselves from him, a scenario which former longtime Democratic Hill aide Billy Moore likens to when Democrats "tried to split with Clinton over Lewinsky" and "it did no good because all Democrats were tarred with Clinton's misbehavior."
The new Newsweek Poll, like the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, shows that Bush's insistence on increasing US troops at a time when a majority of Americans want the war wrapped up is fueling a growing public perception that he's obstinate and unwilling to listen. Per the Newsweek survey, 67% "believe Bush's decisions about policy in Iraq and other major areas are influenced more by his personal beliefs regardless of the facts, while just 22 percent say his decisions are influenced more by the facts," the release says. Bush receives his lowest-ever job approval rating in the survey, 30%.
Simply by insisting that his successor will inherit the problems in Iraq, Bush arguably focuses the public's attention onto the looming presidential race and poisons the well for Republican candidates who support his policies on the war. The issue already may be dragging down the party's widely accepted frontrunner, Sen. John McCain, who has firmly embraced a troop increase. In the Newsweek Poll, he loses to all three top Democratic candidates, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards. Until recently, most polls had depicted McCain as the only Republican capable of beating Clinton.
This week, Bush will take another stab at focusing attention on issues other than Iraq. He has an energy event today and economic events on Tuesday and Wednesday, including a Wall Street stop. But the prospect of a Senate debate over the resolutions opposing a troop increase, and the return of Speaker Nancy Pelosi from her trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, ensure that the war will remain front and center and overshadow Bush's domestic events. NBC's Ken Strickland advises that debate over the resolutions could start as early as this week, depending on what agreement leaders reach on the terms, and on the Senate's finishing up the minimum wage bill.