Last Week Was Bad. But It’s Not the End — Not by a Long Shot

Posted October 31, 2005 at 4:25pm

Last week’s indictment of Scooter Libby, coming fast on the heels of Hurricane Katrina and the Harriet Miers withdrawal, rocked Washington, D.C., as the Bush administration’s famously even keel hit its roughest waters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Democrats could hardly conceal their glee in seeing President Bush lose his footing as wave after wave of bad news washed over his beleaguered White House in recent weeks. [IMGCAP(1)]

No one can dispute that, in terms of public opinion, this has been the roughest couple of months this president has faced to date. His current standings in the polls, the right track/wrong track numbers, should set off alarm bells for Republicans, and they have. But in their rush to write a long-awaited obituary for the Bush presidency, Democrats and much of the media downplayed or ignored altogether some other crucial numbers that got lost in the negative atmospherics of last week.

First is the “No. 1.” As bad as the indictment of Libby is, the outcome of the investigation could have been worse — much worse. After 22 months of wild speculation by Democrats and the media about an ugly White House “conspiracy” that was “perpetrated” by a raft of key Bush advisers to out a covert CIA agent, only a single individual was charged by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. No conspiracy indictments. No indictments concerning the underlying charge of revealing the cover of a CIA agent. No Karl Rove indictment.

Still, in the short term, there is no question that the allegations against Libby have hurt the Bush White House and its reputation for integrity and honesty. But the American people are famously forgiving of their presidents and their stumbles, and Bush has time on his side, 1,075 days to be exact, which is plenty of time to rebound. A lot can happen in 1,000 days. The Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Iran-Contra and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Impeachment and acquittal.

In truth, most presidents, at some point in their tenure, have slumped in the polls, sometimes dramatically, only to rebound to a position of political strength — a fact that Democrats conveniently overlook when crowing about Bush’s dip in public opinion. On Fox News Sunday, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) boldly asserted, “When your poll numbers are 39 percent, as they are this morning for the President of the United States, that’s tremendously low. I don’t know of any other sitting president who’s had numbers like that, as low as that while in the White House.” Really?

How about the previous seven presidents? Bill Clinton (36 percent), George H.W. Bush (29 percent), Ronald Reagan (40 percent), Jimmy Carter (21 percent), Gerald Ford (37 percent), Richard Nixon (24 percent) and Lyndon Johnson (35 percent) all had job approvals equivalent or lower than the current president’s 39 percent at one point or another in their presidencies. So much for Democratic political hyperbole and Dodd’s accuracy.

More to the point, it’s never smart to underestimate the ability of presidents to dig themselves out of the holes they find themselves in. In the midst of the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan’s job approval hit its lowest point at 40 percent (Gallup, February 1987). Just a year and a half later, the Gipper had regained the initiative with a 61 percent job approval (CBS/New York Times, October 1988).

Clinton reached his low, 36 percent, in a May 1993 CNN/Time poll. Despite endless scandals and the first impeachment of a president in well over a century, Clinton’s job approval just before he left office reached a remarkable 67 percent (CBS News, December 2000) in large part because of the nation’s soaring economy at the time.

George W. Bush, thanks to his own successful economic policies grounded in tax cuts, has a similar opportunity to ride the coattails of today’s remarkably strong economy back into better political territory. One of the most overlooked numbers of last week was the release of the third quarter gross domestic product. Even with record-high oil prices, billions of dollars in hurricane damage and hundreds of thousands of people out of work because of the storms, the American economy rocketed forward with an unexpectedly strong 3.8 percent growth rate in the last quarter. But who knew about it?

And who knew that the Iraqi Constitution was officially approved last week by a whopping 79 percent? Democrats, who have loudly clamored for the president to set deadlines for an exit strategy in Iraq, got exactly what they’ve been asking for: a clear and convincing step forward. Yet this historic milestone for Iraq, the Middle East and Bush’s strategy in the war against terrorism, gained at the gut-wrenching cost of more than 2,000 precious American lives, was all but ignored.

With the 24/7 “Fitzgerald watch” on cable TV now subsiding, the economy surging, and a new Supreme Court nomination in play, Bush has the opportunity to begin again as presidents before him have done. By focusing on a targeted agenda — the war, gas prices, education, taxes and spending — Bush can regain the initiative and put Republicans in a strong position for the midterm elections 371 days from today.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.