Things are looking up for George W. Bush, and maybe for his party.
The Democrats failed to win the special election in the 50th congressional district of California June 6. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed on June 7. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald announced he would not seek an indictment of chief Bush adviser Karl Rove on June 12. Bush made a dazzling surprise trip to Baghdad on June 13 and followed up with a confident press conference the next day. The Senate voted 93-6 on June 15 and the House 256-153 on June 17 against U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
A turning point in the president's political fortunes? Maybe. But I'm inclined to think that Bush and the Republicans were not in quite as much trouble as most in the press thought, and I'm not sure these developments will produce an immediate surge in Bush's poll ratings. Why?
Start with the proposition that Bush's low standings in the polls have more to do with competence than ideology. It begins with Katrina: The president was unable to prevent the physical destruction of a large part of a major central city. That's bound to hurt, whoever's fault it was. The struggle in Iraq seemed to be continuing without an end in sight -- and Mainstream Media have done their best to ignore or belittle signs of progress. The Harriet Miers nomination, the Dubai Ports deal, the failure to get Congress to consider Social Security reform -- all contribute to the impression things are out of control. That's not good for an incumbent president. In addition, Bush is at odds with the Republican base on the hot issue of immigration. So his support from Republicans is less solid than it was until 2005.
But impressions of presidential incompetence do not necessarily translate to votes for the other party. We saw that in the California 50th race, where the Democratic nominee got 45 percent of the vote, just 1 percent more than John Kerry won in the district in 2004. To read the Mainstream Media, you would suppose that millions of enraged Democrats are ready to storm the polling places in record numbers and throw the evil Republicans out. But actual election returns don't seem to bear that out. Turnout has been robust in some states (Ohio) and low in others (California), with no clear pattern. We haven't seen much in the way of a disproportionately large turnout increase for Democrats. That may come next November. Or it may not.
Polls, unfortunately, aren't good at projecting turnout.