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What America Thinks About Bush’s Call to Advance Democracy

President Bush believes elections in Iraq will have a spillover effect for democracy in the region. In his inaugural speech he made a bold argument that spreading democracy enhances our security. Does the public buy it? [IMGCAP(1)]

A Harris poll taken Jan. 11-16 found that 24 percent thought an elected government in Iraq would be a model that would help spread freedom. By contrast, 59 percent said the new government would not be able to do this. In a Jan. 15-17 Los Angeles Times poll, 47 percent of respondents said it was likely that the upcoming election in Iraq would help advance democracy in other Middle Eastern countries, while 45 percent said that outcome was not likely.

In a Gallup, CNN and USA Today poll taken after the speech, 35 percent said the United States could achieve the goal of ending tyranny in the world. Sixty percent said we could not.

Also, 60 percent agreed that spreading democracy was essential for U.S. security, while 35 percent said it wouldn’t make much difference to our security.

How Polarized Are We? It did not go unnoticed that recent polls found the country sharply divided even on the question of whether the country is, in fact, divided. Here’s a sampling of recent public opinion about our divisions and how important people think they are.

First, a look at Bush’s contribution. In its mid-January poll, the Los Angeles Times reminded people that in his acceptance speech after his election, Bush had said he was a president for all Americans, not just those who had voted for him, and that he would work in a nonpartisan way with Democrats and Republicans.

When asked whether they thought Bush had been less partisan than past presidents, 22 percent said that Bush had been less partisan, 25 percent said he’d been more so and 47 percent said he’d been about as partisan as past presidents.

Majorities of Republicans and independents agreed that Bush was like past presidents. Democrats split, with 37 percent saying he was about the same and 38 percent saying he was more partisan. Only 20 percent of Democrats thought Bush was less partisan than past presidents.

The mid-January poll by Gallup, CNN and USA Today uncovered a less generous assessment. In that poll, 27 percent said Bush had healed the political divisions in this country, while 68 percent said he had not. In its Jan. 20 post-inaugural poll, 42 percent said Bush would heal the divisions in the country during the next four years. Fifty-three percent said he would not.

In the meantime, 44 percent in the mid-January CBS News/New York Times poll said his presidency would bring different groups together, while 47 percent said it would not.

Polls also have asked respondents to assess the current environment. In an early January poll by Gallup, CNN and USA Today, 70 percent said the country is more deeply divided on the major issues than it has been in the past several years, while 27 percent said the country was not.

However, offering people a middle ground produced a different picture. The January NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that a plurality, 43 percent, said the country was about the same as it was four years ago in terms of partisanship, 38 percent said it was worse off and 10 percent said it was better off.

On expectations, 27 percent told NBC News/Wall Street Journal interviewers in a mid-December poll that 2005 would be a time of unity, when Democrats and Republicans would work together to reach consensus.

By contrast, 65 percent predicted 2005 would be a period of division in which the parties hold fast to their positions and show little willingness to compromise. In Pew’s early January poll, 30 percent thought Democrats and Republicans would work together more; 59 percent said they would bicker more than usual.

On the question of whether Democrats should confront or cooperate, one-third of respondents in the January NBC/Wall Street Journal poll wanted Democrats to work in bipartisan ways to pass Bush’s legislative priorities, compared to 57 percent who wanted them to provide a balance to make sure that Bush and the Republicans don’t go too far in pushing their agenda.

In a Los Angeles Times poll, 28 percent said the Democrats should not compromise even if the result is that nothing gets done on some issues, while 69 percent said they should find ways to compromise, even if they have to agree to things they find objectionable.

In the January CBS/New York Times poll, 55 percent predicted that Bush would compromise with Congress in order to get things done, while 38 percent said he would not.

Finally, in surveys of what should top the agenda, the whole matter of partisanship attracted little interest. In the Jan. 12-16 ABC News/Washington Post poll, respondents were asked about top priorities for Congress and the administration.

As it happens, reducing political partisanship ranked dead last, ranking 12th of 12 issues offered.

Karlyn Bowman is a resident fellow specializing in public opinion and polls at the American Enterprise Institute.

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