The Public Looks Beyond Iraq

Michael Barone

9/10/2007 12:01:00 AM - Michael Barone

This week, the American public will surely be focused on Iraq, as Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker present their reports to Congress. Petraeus and Crocker will undoubtedly speak of the striking military success of the surge strategy, while Democrats will try to focus on the failure of Iraqi politicians to reach agreement on major issues.

But Iraq is not the only challenge America will face in the coming years. Islamist terrorists will continue to try to attack the United States and undermine if not destroy our free society. And Americans, for all the media's concentration on Iraq, seem aware of this -- and will be keeping it in mind as they decide on how to vote next year.

That's the message you get from an interesting poll conducted in mid-August by Public Opinion Strategies, a widely respected Republican firm, for the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Unlike most polls, it doesn't include specific questions on Iraq, but rather focuses on the wider struggle.

It still shows some divisions that parallel those on Iraq. Will the United States be safer from terrorism if it confronts the countries and groups that promote terrorism or if it stays out of other countries' affairs? Some 48 percent prefer confrontation, 44 percent staying out of other countries' affairs. Fully 79 percent of Republicans are for confrontation, while 67 percent of Democrats are for staying out of other countries' affairs.

But you don't see such a partisan division when the question is whether the next generation of Americans will be less safe from foreign threats than we are now. Americans agree by a 57 percent to 39 percent margin -- the margin of agreement is statistically identical among Republicans (17 percent), independents (19 percent) and Democrats (18 percent).

Will the threat from Islamic fundamentalism be significantly reduced once George Bush is no longer president? By a 58 percent to 35 percent margin, Americans say no. Will that threat be significantly reduced once U.S. troops leave Iraq? By a 58 percent to 37 percent margin, they say no.

What we see here is quite at odds with what has been the prevailing political dialogue. When the question is approval or disapproval of the conduct of the war in Iraq, the middle segment of the electorate -- independents -- have joined Democrats in expressing sharp disapproval. In the Democratic presidential debates, candidates have been vying to show that they support withdrawing from Iraq (though lately some have felt obliged to concede that they wouldn't remove all U.S. troops anytime soon). On this issue, the Democratic field is in line not only with the Democratic primary voter, but also with most of the general electorate.

But when it comes to the question of protecting Americans from Islamist terrorists, the Democrats have little to say, or nothing. Democratic candidates have mentioned Islamist terrorism only briefly or, more often, not at all in their several debates. In contrast, Republican candidates in their debates have more to say on the subject. On this issue, it is the Republican candidates who are in line not only with their primary electorate but also with most voters in the general election.

This helps to explain one anomaly in current polling, that while voters generically prefer a Democratic candidate, when they are presented with a choice between the two candidates now leading in the polls, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, they are split just about evenly. The reason is that Democrats are giving voters the impression that they believe everything will be just fine in the world once Bush is back in Crawford and the troops are home from Iraq.

The Public Opinion Strategies poll indicates that that is a notion a solid majority of American voters reject. They know that the Sept. 11 attacks were planned long before Bush became president and that our enemies will try to launch new attacks after he is gone.

Raging against George W. Bush plays well among Democratic primary voters while Bush still has more than a year left in his presidency. The Democratic base has been in a fury against Bush since the Florida controversy in late 2000, and its appetite for denunciation of him and all his works seems never to be satisfied. But raging against Bush, and leaving the impression that you feel the threats we face will disappear when he does, could leave the Democratic presidential nominee vulnerable next fall when Bush's presidency will be about to recede into history.