Mr. President: stop picking the scab

Posted: Mar 23, 2006 12:05 AM

First the bad news, and then a way to make it good news -- good, that is, if you support Republicans.

But don't despair, Democrats. The White House is bound to ignore my suggestion. So you will probably end up with the best news of all.

InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion Research is now conducting an ambitious public-opinion survey of the entire South. The region is crucial to Republican hopes of holding on to their congressional majority and to many governorships.

The final, comprehensive results of the poll weren't yet complete when this column was filed. Over 4,000 interviews have been conducted, however -- enough to render persuasively alarming news for the GOP.

For example, in the populous states of Florida and Georgia, more respondents want the Democrats to control Congress next year than they do the Republicans.

President George W. Bush won both states in 2004, and yet he now has higher disapproval ratings than approval ratings. In Georgia, his disapproval rate approaches 50 percent. In Florida, it's 55 percent.

It gets worse for Republicans. Initial polling results seem to show that the disapproval of Washington Republicans is starting to translate into possible votes against GOP candidates this fall in statewide races back home. Most of these are races in which Republicans would expect to hold obvious upper hands.

Not surprisingly given the overall polling results, there is also an emerging trend of erosion of support for President Bush and the GOP Congress by core conservative voters, as well as by independent voters. In the Republicans' strongest region in the nation, it's these independents who usually give the conservative party its victory margins.

Much of the mess the president now finds himself in can be explained by what I'll call the West Wing Effect.

Those who watch the television series "The West Wing" know that its Republican candidate for president supported nuclear energy, which earned him frightened scorn when the nation was then stricken by a nuclear accident.

Ignoring advisers who suggested stonewalling the issue, the candidate finally comes clean before the nation. He fields endless questions from all who care to bully or inquire.

Sound familiar? It should, because the fictitious president voluntarily threw himself to the media wolves at about the same time the real President Bush did the same over Iraq. Bush and his team decided to give an almost daily sequence of speeches on the unpopular war and to answer all questions about it.

Life has imitated art. This public relations strategy has been disastrous.

The deceptively simple truth about all of this is that while most Americans aren't wild about the Iraq venture, it's not something that dominates their lives and thoughts.

More accurately, it wouldn't cause them dark dreams if the president would stop picking at this geopolitical scab on his face before it becomes a gaping wound.

Though I've written it perhaps to excess, I'm compelled to try again: Americans, more than anything, seem to yearn for a captivating set of policy initiatives to curb the power and scope of government. Something that throws them back to the heady days and ways of Ronald Reagan.

Perhaps the Bush White House could stage a historic popular comeback if it could muster the imagination and moxie required to offer this vision to the nation.

Thanks to their myopic obsession with fighting the insular wars of the Washington, D.C. "Beltway," the Bush White House has been suckered into believing that a lack of public support for the Iraq war is the sole reason for what is starting to be widely viewed as a complete meltdown at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

A few weeks back, I chided Vice President Dick Cheney's staff for dragging their feet in dealing with what was essentially a minor shooting mishap. Even so, I didn't suggest that they or their boss hold daily press briefings on the medical condition of his wounded hunting buddy. 

I'm sure the president doesn't watch "The West Wing." Nor does he read newspapers, by his own admission. I'm also reasonably certain his advisers don't crib their strategy from a television program produced by a liberal Democrat.

So it's quite a coincidence that the pretend president and the real one seem to be operating in parallel trajectories of political suicide.

Just as remarkable is the American media's ability to keep the scattered successes of Iraqi insurgents at the forefront of our society's attention, while effectively minimizing the good news of a vigorous economy, safety on our own soil and many positive developments in other parts of the world.

The press is scoring at will, to quote the sports phrase. To cite another one, George W. Bush is getting an assist on each of their goals.

Every day, with each new speech or press conference on Iraq, he voluntarily digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole. The media simply reports on his descent. Soon he may dig himself through to the other side of the globe and pull his party mates in Congress through with him.

Sorry, but I can't help but say it again: This man needs better advice. And though I may be bleating the same sour note, I now have thousands of polling interviews that provide indisputable evidence that those from the region of his greatest support and success feel much the same way.