Inside the numbers

Posted: Apr 27, 2004 12:00 AM

 Weeks ago, Sen. Edward Kennedy proclaimed the war in Iraq "another Vietnam." Whether Kennedy's statement was a dispassionate assessment of the situation, or a trial balloon for the Democrats' big theme this election season, our most recent InsiderAdvantage survey indicates that most Americans are not yet persuaded that Kennedy is correct.

 Our April survey of voters asked:

 "Do you agree or disagree with the statement 'Iraq is becoming another Vietnam'?"

 Agree: 38 percent
 Disagree: 57 percent
 Undecided/Don't know: 5 percent

 The poll was conducted with our associates, The Marketing Workshop, on April 12 and 14. It sampled 500 voters nationwide and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

 While the continued chaos and loss of American lives in Iraq may lend itself to comparisons with the once seemingly endless loss of life in Vietnam, the InsiderAdvantage poll clearly shows that those who identify themselves as Democrats strongly agree the Iraqi conflict has reached a level where it can be compared with the truly divisive and controversial Vietnam War. Not only do Republicans strongly disagree with statement, but so too do those identifying themselves as independent voters. And those who describe themselves as "moderates" in their political philosophy joined conservatives in rejecting the notion as well. Even 37 percent of those who call themselves "liberal" disagreed with the statement.

 So if Iraq is no Vietnam, where will the issue take Democrats and their presumptive nominee, Sen. John Kerry? Once again, the answer to that question can be found, at least in part, in the degree to which the Democratic rhetoric and media reports can highlight the war's direction.

 For example, just last week, pictures not cleared by the government for release showed a military cargo plane filled with flag-draped caskets, one after another. The image was a powerful reminder the losses from the war are starting to mount. And with each new attack on troops or civilians in Iraq, there are new statements from Kerry questioning the president's handling of the war, and protests from others arguing the United States should never have pushed for a regime change in that country.

 Our survey, which was conducted both before and after the president's recent press conference -- dominated by questions over the war in Iraq -- indicated there has yet to develop a critical shift of public opinion in the direction of declaring Iraq a hopeless or desperate situation, or at least one of the magnitude of Vietnam's darkest days. In fact, the levels at which most Americans reject the idea were so strong that they beg the obvious question, "Do most voters today even remember the Vietnam War?"

 It appears that age may play some role in how people feel about any Iraq-Vietnam comparison. For example, the two age groups who most strongly disagreed Iraq is becoming another Vietnam were those between the ages of 22 and 34 and 35 and 44. The younger of these two groups had either not been born or were toddlers when Vietnam ended. Even those in their early 40s likely remember the conflict, but they never faced the threat of being drafted or having to fight in it.

 Older respondents were more likely to agree with the comparison, with a plurality of voters age 65 and older actually agreeing that, yes, Iraq is becoming another Vietnam. And therein can be found the challenge for both the Democrats and Republicans over this issue.

 For Democrats, the politics of Iraq must rely in part on continued accusations combined with free flowing pictures of wounded and the return of bodies to the United States. However, such sad and, some would argue, politically opportunistic circumstances alone won't do the trick. Obviously any effort to compare the anguish of the years of Vietnam to our current efforts in Iraq will require a major education process, one which visually shows the horror that was Vietnam and somehow, through the sleight of hand that political media gurus employ, convinces younger voters the two events are indeed similar.

 The Republicans face the challenge of defining the war in Iraq as being different, both in purpose and in clarity of mission, from that of the small peace-keeping mission that turned into an endless battle to contain the enemy. The results following Bush's press conference suggest he may well have made some early inroads in that direction. But older voters who remember the 1960s may continue to see the images of chaos in the streets and soldiers killed in action as a vivid reminder of a time they would like to forget.

 It appears, at present, that while Iraq may be the biggest issue this November, it is currently no Vietnam. To make it one will take a combination of continued loss of life and intense media and political exploitation.