Politicians with low approval ratings will often use that fact almost as a badge of pride and courage. They are doing what’s right, they will proclaim, despite the consequences to their popularity. This is easier to accomplish for a president halfway through his second and last term than it is for members of Congress, who can be re-elected for a seeming eternity and thus always keep a watchful eye on public opinion surveys.
As November of 2006 approached, some incumbents viewed these polls with justified trepidation; prior to the mid-term elections, things were not looking good for many of them, especially if they were members of the Republican Party and had voted lockstep with President George Bush’s policies for the previous six years. With the Iraq war the top priority for many voters, and its popularity dwelling somewhere in a dismal sub-cellar, Republican candidates had much to worry about.
On Election Day many of them were sent to an early retirement. The voters had spoken and swept the GOP out of power, replaced by the peace-proclaiming Democrats. The citizens were happy with their selection; a CBS news poll on January 4, 2007 indicated that 68% were optimistic about the new Congress. Members of that body talked about their plans for their first hundred days, and the war in Iraq was on everyone’s mind.
Fast forward to June 21, 2007. Congress’s approval rating, according to a Newsweek poll, is at 25%. What, one might reasonably ask, happened to all that optimism evident five months ago? Like the ‘political capital’ Mr. Bush claimed to have earned following his 2004 election, it evaporated in the dusty clouds raised by the bombings in Iraq.
The CBS news poll in January showed that voters felt Congress’s main focus should be on Iraq (45%). And in that, Congress did not disappoint them. From debates on whether or not to introduce a non-binding resolution, to passage of a bill setting a timeline for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, Congress has not neglected this issue. But implicit in the voters’ desire for Congress to focus on Iraq, and apparently not understood by the members of that body, was an expectation that they would actually do something constructive to end the war. After Mr. Bush vetoed the bill, Congress meekly handed the president exactly what he wanted, as it has done since prior to the invasion. And thus we see Congress’s slide to the bottom of the ratings barrel.
It does not take a genius to figure out what is happening: the members of the current Congress were elected with one aim in mind, the ending of U.S. involvement in Iraq. The opportunity was theirs; the bill they passed that mandated troop withdrawals was vetoed by the president. That left Congress with two good choices: 1) send a similar bill back to the president, or 2) allow funding for the war to end, thus ending the war. But Congress selected door number three, which when opened spilled out billions of dollars to continue the war.
As they waved their magic political wands and summoned from some apparently unknown source these vast amounts of money to continue the carnage in Iraq, they all suggested that they had to do so to ‘support the troops.’ Here we go again! Let us look at how funding the war supports the troops: 1) it causes Americans to remain in mortal danger; 2) it increases the number of Americans who will be in such danger; 3) it creates and aggravates financial, mental and emotional hardships for the families the soldiers left behind; 4) it places American soldiers at high risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which the government has proven to be extremely miserly in treating, and 5) it provides coffins for them if they die in Iraq. Mr. Bush has been victorious in his rhetorical campaign to convince Congress that black is white and white is black.
It is somewhat ironic that Congress’s rating is even lower than Mr. Bush’s; this could be due to the bitter disappointment Congress has been. The president was elected with the expectation that war would continue; Congress was elected with the opposite expectation. Mr. Bush has not disappointed.
Additionally, Mr. Bush has his loyal base of well-to-do conservatives who always have an eye on their own bottom line. While that is a very small group, it is probably sufficient to account for a significant number of the 26% of the voters who approve of his job performance. Congress has no such foundation; its members were elected with Republican, Democratic and Independent support, and while one might expect the Democrats to be the current Congress’s base, the war issue is sufficiently divisive to prevent it from being so. As a result, Congress is left adrift by its own cowardice.
The United States is nineteen months away from its next major election. Based on recent and distant history, Americans can expect the usual political posturing about ‘supporting the troops’ and ‘fighting terrorism.’ American soldiers, the world is told, are fighting terrorists. Yet, on closer scrutiny, these ‘terrorists’ mainly appear to be Iraqi citizens trying to protect their nation from foreign invaders. Mr. Bush discusses the need to ‘finish the job’ without explaining just what that job is. Hopeful Americans went to the polls last November and elected men and women who they expected would finish the job with a speedy exit from Iraq. There is nothing for the United States to accomplish there that is not detrimental to that nation’s citizens.
When polls for a candidate show his or her ratings have descended into some bottomless pit, the hapless individual often cites his/her own polls which show something quite different. This peculiar spin on reality is seldom successful; the candidate is usually defeated by whatever margin the first poll indicated. Congress can ignore its current rating or try to spin it in some positive manner, although how an approval rating of 25% can be so spun will make for some interesting verbal gymnastics, but the facts are plain for all to see. Unless and until Congress acts with the mandate the citizens gave it last November, its ratings will remain at rock bottom. And while the members of Congress sputter and spin and blather on about Iraq, Americans and Iraqis are dying in unforgivable numbers. This is no longer solely Mr. Bush’s war; Congress is now its deadly co-owner.
ROBERT FANTINA is author of ‘Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776–2006.‘