March 03, 2005

National Security And The Polls

The new poll NYT/CBS poll has an interesting tidbit: only 44 percent of Americans approve of the president's foreign policy direction. One could conclude, as Matt does, that this means the Democrats can make sweet, sweet electoral headway on national security issues because Republicans are actually quite vulnerable here.

Fair enough, but a few points of skepticism. As a thought experiment, I wonder how, exactly, these poll numbers would be any different if John Kerry had been elected. Thinking about what substantive policy differences might have occurred between November 2 and now, let's assume that under Kerry, the U.S. probably wouldn't have invaded Fallujah. That might have made it harder to secure the Iraqi elections. (Perhaps.) An election-day debacle might have had bad spillover effects. More to the point, it might've made Kerry's foreign policy massively unpopular here at home, assuming voters didn't blame Bush for the mess. What else? It's reasonable to think that Lebanon would still play out the way it's now playing out now. So would Israel-Palestine. On the other hand, Kerry expressly indicated that he wouldn't be too concerned with democracy promotion in Egypt—a terrible mistake in my mind—so Mubarak might never have announced elections, but I don't think that would lower Kerry's ratings. After all, a whopping 59 percent of voters think the U.S. should "stay out" of other countries' businesses, with only 27 percent liking these newfound democracy-promotion efforts. So less fervor on regime change is, at best, a neutral advantage for Democrats (Bush has mostly stayed out of other countries, after all).

More to the point, it's difficult to see how any Democratic president would conduct a different foreign policy from Bush's that also wins over more voters at home. My hunch is that people don't much care about Iran/North Korea, and are willing to trust "their" party to handle the issue in some vague unspecified way. Meanwhile, Bush has high approval ratings (61 percent) on "terrorism" issues, which Democrats can at best try to neutralize. On the other hand, since NYT/CBS poll took place after the whole Europe trip, I suspect that many Americans are primarily none too happy about our less-than-warm transatlantic relations. A Democratic president like Kerry would've repaired some of the symbolic rift on this front, and that would increase his popularity because polls show that people place a high priority on transatlantic relations. Okay.

Sorry, this is mostly rambling. Let me get to the point and highlight the big fat paradox. There seems to be one main area in which Democrats could earn higher marks than President Bush on foreign policy—relations with Europe. But it's already widely known that Democrats would be better than Republicans at that, so it's hard to figure out where, exactly, Democrats can make headway in the electorate on national security issues.

Perhaps you could say that if Democrats could just pull even with the Republicans on vague "terrorism" issues in the polls, then they could use their Europhile advantage to win on the national security issue. Or maybe looking at this stuff issue-by-issue is the wrong way to go and what the Democrats really need is a more holistic "strong on national security" image/message/slogan/whatever.

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-- Brad Plumer 3:58 PM || ||