In the 1993 film "Groundhog Day," comedian Bill Murray played a
television personality who found himself trapped in an endless, repetitive
sequence of events. He was doomed to continuously relive the events of one
day in his life as a weatherman assigned to cover the telltale behavior of a
legendary Pennsylvania groundhog.
The way this week started for George W. Bush, he must have felt
a lot like Murray's ill-fated character. The president seems mired in an
endless repeat of half-hearted actions by Iraq, inconclusive statements by
United Nations weapons inspectors, stall-ball language from members of the
U.N. Security Council, and a Dow Jones industrial average that ping-pongs up
and down without deciding whether to finally take off or decline.
The latest polls support the premise that Bush is stuck in a
"Groundhog Day Syndrome," and they provide a strong hint that if he doesn't
move quickly, he might never completely escape the political fallout.
Early last fall, the president enjoyed strong job approval
ratings and equally strong public support for any potential war in Iraq. But
the endless diplomatic shuffles, combined with a poorly received domestic
economic proposal, now have Bush stuck. He can neither muster the momentum
necessary to take action abroad, nor capture the media's restless attention
span long enough to promote his economic stimulus package.
Consider: Our poll of 1,000 Americans in mid-January showed that
only 44 percent supported President Bush's economic proposals. At the same
time, nearly 50 percent said they would vote to re-elect him against all of
the announced and other anticipated challengers for 2004. Even after the
destruction of the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 61 percent were
prepared to support Bush in a war against Iraq. But those same poll
respondents gave the president his lowest job approval rating since 9/11 --
Since the shuttle tragedy, Bush has had little to help improve
his numbers. Perhaps the only real bright spot came in the form of an
endorsement of the president's economic plan by the influential Democrat
from Georgia, Sen. Zell Miller. But Miller's political heft and potentially
critical vote notwithstanding, one can't help but hear the sound of air
leaking with a loud hiss from Bush's efforts to liberate the Iraqi people
and revive the American economy.
Now, with each new day of old words and little else, Americans
are left to wonder what it will take for George W.'s own version of
"Groundhog Day" to transform suddenly into another popular movie -- "Back to
the Future." That film depicted time travelers emerging into the past. The
president could end up playing out his own re-make. Like his father, George
H.W. Bush, George Jr. could find himself running for re-election against a
troublesome conservative ideologue like Pat Buchanan.
Conjecture? Exaggeration? Not really. It was Buchanan in 1992
that challenged the incumbent George Bush, forcing him to defend his
conservative credentials in the South. That right-of-center tiff helped stir
up enough voter discontent to trigger the meteoric rise of third party
candidate Ross Perot, whose electoral success helped vault the upstart
Democrat Bill Clinton past the seemingly invincible Bush.
While Buchanan might not be the one the younger Bush could
collide with if the president "goes back in time," it is still interesting
to note that no less than Buchanan himself is loudly making known his
opposition to a war in the Middle East. Importantly, Buchanan is not alone
among established Washington conservatives.
It is likely that without an invasion of Iraq soon, support for
the war will wither and the president's approval rating -- not to mention
his ability to pass a meaningful economic package -- will suffer greatly.
The answer for Bush? Fish or cut bait. Some pollsters have
argued that American support for war with Iraq is contingent on
participation by other nations. But our poll of mid-February showed that
support would come, allied support or not. However, if the president waits
even a few weeks more for new U.N. resolutions, semi-effective inspections
in Iraq and prevarications from Saddam Hussein, he will likely lose the
critical mass of support needed to fight his proposed war.
For George W. Bush, as for the Bill Murray character, the time
has come to escape Groundhog Day once and for all. He must invade Iraq, or
declare victory and bring the troops home. Only then will our nation return
its attention to the other critical issues and activities necessary for his
political -- and our national -- survival.
And if in mid-March we are still talking about Iraq with words
like "if" and "when," the story of Bush's 2004 re-election bid may not
provide a happy Hollywood ending for the White House.