A Political Limbo -- How low can the Republicans go?
Come hell or high water-ran the conventional wisdom-Republicans could rely on two issues to win elections: the war on terror and values. Then came Mark Foley. The drip-drip-drip of scandal surrounding the former Congressman from Florida, which became a deluge this week, now threatens to sink Republican hopes of keeping control of Congress, says the NEWSWEEK poll out today [October 7].
And that was the good news for the GOP. More worrisome still, the Foley fiasco is jeopardizing the party’s monopoly on faith and power. For the first time since 2001, the NEWSWEEK poll shows that more Americans trust the Democrats than the GOP on moral values and the war on terror. Fully 53 percent of Americans want the Democrats to win control of Congress next month, including 10 percent of Republicans, compared to just 35 percent who want the GOP to retain power. If the election were held today, 51 percent of likely voters would vote for the Democrat in their district versus 39 percent who would vote for the Republican. And while the race is closer among male voters (46 percent for the Democrats vs. 42 percent for the Republicans), the Democrats lead among women voters 56 to 34 percent.
The pace of the news on the Foley scandal is making it difficult for Republicans to stop their slide. On Thursday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert declared that mistakes were made in handling the Foley case and that he would remain in his post to make sure the misdeeds were thoroughly investigated. Almost immediately, ABC News reported that three more former pages had come forward to say that they had received suggestive e-mails and instant messages from Foley. And just as Republicans were attempting to form a united front to paint the timing of the Foley revelations as Democratic dirty tricks-What did Nancy Pelosi know and when did she know it?-the Republicans got a fratricidal shot out of the dark-on Iraq. Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner declared that the United States had 90 days to quell the violence in Iraq, or risk losing the war. To top it off, on Friday an aide to Karl Rove resigned over the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling and corruption scandal.
Meanwhile, the president’s approval rating has fallen to a new all-time low for the Newsweek poll: 33 percent, down from an already anemic 36 percent in August. Only 25 percent of Americans are satisfied with the direction of the country, while 67 percent say they are not. Foley’s disgrace certainly plays a role in Republican unpopularity: 27 percent of registered voters say the scandal and how the Republican leadership in the House handled it makes them less likely to vote for a Republican Congressional candidate; but 65 percent say it won’t make much difference in determining how they vote. And Americans are equally divided over whether or not Speaker Hastert should resign over mishandling the situation (43 percent say he should, but 36 percent say he shouldn’t).
The scandal’s more significant impact seems to be a widening of the yawning credibility gap developing between the President, his party and the nation. While 52 percent of Americans believe Hastert was aware of Foley’s actions and tried to cover them up, it’s part of a larger loss of faith in Republican leadership, thanks mostly to the war in Iraq. For instance, for the first time in the NEWSWEEK poll, a majority of Americans now believe the Bush administration knowingly misled the American people in building its case for war against Saddam Hussein: 58 percent vs. 36 percent who believe it didn’t. And pessimism over Iraq is at record highs on every score: nearly two in three Americans, 64 percent, believe the United States is losing ground there; 66 percent say the war has not made America safer from terrorism (just 29 percent believe it has); and 53 percent believe it was a mistake to go to war at all, again the first time the NEWSWEEK poll has registered a majority in that camp.
As a result, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s approval rating has fallen to just 30 percent, and more Americans believe he should resign than remain, 48 percent vs. 37 percent. And while a plurality of Americans approve of the job Condoleezza Rice is doing as Secretary of State, 48 percent vs. 32 percent who disapprove, on the heels of Bob Woodward’s bestselling critique of the Bush administration, “State of Denial,” a solid majority, 58 percent, believe Rice did not pay as much attention as she should have been expected to pay to the domestic terror threat posed by al Qaeda before 9/11. (Only 22 percent believe she did.)
Democrats now outdistance Republicans on every single issue that could decide voters’ choices come Nov. 7. In addition to winning—for the first time in the NEWSWEEK poll—on the question of which party is more trusted to fight the war on terror (44 to 37 percent) and moral values (42 percent to 36 percent), the Democrats now inspire more trust than the GOP on handling Iraq (47 to 34); the economy (53 to 31); health care (57 to 24); federal spending and the deficit (53 to 29); gas and oil prices (56 to 23); and immigration (43 to 34).
And even if the Republicans manage to bail out their ship before the midterms, they’ll have a hard time matching their one-time strengths to voters’ priorities. A third of registered voters, 33 percent, say the single most important issue that will decide their vote will be Iraq; compare to 20 percent who say the economy and only 12 percent who say terrorism, which ties with health care.