What moves the undecided voter and what effect will the war in Iraq and the issue of terror have at the ballot box next year?
[The following is a slightly abridged edited text of the ninth session of Honors Collegium 155, given in Dodd Hall at UCLA May 28 by John Zaller, a professor of political science at UCLA. His title was "American Politics: Will Foreign Policy Dominate in 2004?" The subheads have been added.
[John Zaller specializes in public opinion and the mass media. His principal publication is Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (Cambridge, 1992). His other works include Politics as Usual: Ross Perot and the Mass Media (Chicago, 1997). This unusual 10-part seminar for undergraduates was also open to the general public. The class was sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations.]
* * *
What I want to try to do today is to take a unique event and fit it into a political system about which quite a bit is known, and so to show how our political system is going to process that issue. The aspect of our political system I am going to pay the most attention to is partisanship: partisanship at the level of the elites, the guys in Congress and in the White House who are making decisions, and partisanship at the mass level. I am going to try to examine the interplay between partisanship at those two levels. You might wish that partisanship should have nothing to do with something so important as 9/11, but partisanship has a lot to do with it, although not everything.
Two Thirds of the Electorate Vote a Hard Partisan Ticket
I want to talk about partisanship in two senses and at the mass level. There are two ways in which it can be important. There are a bunch of people out there who are really dedicated partisans. The term for the Democratic partisans is Yellow Dog Democrat, as in "I would vote for a yellow dog if he were on the Democratic ticket," and Rock-ribbed Republicans, who also would never vote for anybody but a Republican. They constitute for all practical purposes about two thirds of the electorate. One third of them are pretty seriously committed Democrats, another third pretty seriously committed Republicans, and then a third who don't have strong party ties.
So partisanship in the meaning of strongly committed to the party is one sense. The other sense in which partisanship is important, and it is more relevantly important I think for understanding how 9/11 is going to play out, is that there are a lot of people out there who will judge the party in office by how well it performs in office. If the White House has a Republican in it and the Congress is controlled by Republicans and things go well, then there are a lot of people who are going to vote for the Republicans in the next election and the Republicans will do well. Or alternatively, if there is a disaster, there are a lot of people who will vote against the Republicans and for the Democrats just at the bat of an eye. Those are the people who are going to swing the elections, obviously.
The Yellow Dog Democrats are not going to do it; the Rock-ribbed Republicans are not going to do it; but it is this group of people who really will judge the party on its performance in office.
How do people become partisan? There are a lot of people who have learned their partisanship at the knees of their parents. Those are the hard core types. A 1965 study showed that 79% of the children of Democrats voted Democratic and 64% of the children of Republicans voted Republican.
There has been a lot of talk in the press and in academic literature about how partisanship in this sense has been declining. Not so. The mean level of party attachment among people who vote in elections is as high now as it has been any time in the last 50 years, since the 1952 elections. And actually there are other analyses that go back to the nineteenth century that show that partisanship in the U.S. now is as high and as strong as even in the nineteenth century, which is considered the heyday of partisan politics. Some people don't believe that, but I would be happy to discuss the data with anyone who wants to get into that.
Swing Voters Hold the Party in Power Responsible for Everything
For the other kind of partisanship, there are a lot of people out there who will blame the party in power for whatever goes wrong, including the weather. There is a friend of mine who has done a paper showing that in the 1916 election in townships on the New Jersey shore, where there had been shark attacks that President Wilson did nothing about, voters did not support Wilson as strongly in the 916 election as they had in 1912. In effect they held the president responsible for shark attacks.
The swing voters in U.S. elections tend to be very low information voters who are very results oriented, not interested in complicated explanations. A more sophisticated voter would not hold an incumbent administration responsible for the weather or for shark attacks or maybe even for the economy. The ability of administrations to control the economy is limited at best, and yet everybody will tell you, and I will show you, that incumbent administrations are held responsible for the performance of the economy.
So we have these people out there who are swing voters, who will hold the parties accountable for events. They have a few preconceptions, though. The May 27 New York Times ran a graph that gives you a sense of what the preconceptions are of the people who are going to be holding the parties responsible. People were asked in surveys, who do you think will be better for the environment, the Democrats or the Republicans? Most people thought the Democrats were better on the environment. Most people think the Democrats are better on prescription drugs, job creation, and health care. Education is kind of a draw. But on the military and terrorism, the Republicans are considered much better. And of course, those are big issues right now.
The Republicans Will Try to Keep the Discussion Focused on Terrorism and the Military
For a short initial answer to the question, how is 9/11 going to play in 2004, I think what you are going to see is that the Republicans are going to try to keep the country talking about military issues, defense issues, and terrorism, and the Democrats are going to try to change the subject to one that they are more trusted on. How that is going to go is difficult to predict. But these are some preconceptions that people have going in and will no doubt have an effect on things.
You saw an indication of what these politics will look like in the 2002 midterm elections, where the Democrats throughout the fall were trying to get the conversation onto the economy and onto health care, but the Bush administration was successful in keeping the conversation on issues of national security and terrorism and as a result the Republicans didn't lose in spite of a weak economy. In fact they gained a little bit. The kind of politics that you saw in 2002, with each side trying to bend the conversation to its issues you are probably going to see played out in 2004. What is not so clear is how events are going to make it easier or harder for that to happen. If the economy gets bad enough the Democrats are going to have a good issue and they will not have to try to force the conversation onto that.
Partisan People See What Their Politics Tells Them Should Be There
What I just said is what you can read in any Op Ed page in the country these days. I am going to try to push it a little bit farther here. I have some figures here on partisan perceptions of the economy taken in 1980 and in 1992. In 1980, under a Democratic president, people were asked whether they thought the economy was getting better or worse. 61% of the strong Republicans thought that the economy was getting worse; and only 31% of the strong Democrats thought it was getting worse. So the Republicans were taking a much more pessimistic view of the economy in 1980, when, as it so happened, there was a Democratic president. In 1992, under a Republican president, only 13% of the Republicans questioned thought the economy was bad, but now it was the Democrats who were pessimistic, with 59% of the strong Democrats thinking the economy was bad.
The theme that I am illustrating here is the idea that there are these hard core partisans out there and they are prepared to see the world from a partisan point of view. There is a lot of partisan bias in perceptions of the world. Not so much among the swing voters, but among the two thirds or so of the people who are more or less partisan.
The Better Informed Voters Are Also the Most Biased
The second point that I want to make is that the partisan bias in perception is much stronger among highly informed people. Low information people are much less likely than the high information people to have their answers affected by which party is in power. I am going to discuss a few questionnaire surveys that looked at how responses differed by how well informed the respondents were, separate from the issue of their partisan orientation.
This measure was obtained by asking simple factual questions about politics: Who is the Speaker of the House? Who is the vice president? Who is the chief justice of the Supreme Court? Only about 10 or 12% know who the chief justice of the Supreme Court is, even though he has been in there for quite a while. He is kind of an obscure figure in American politics as far as a lot of voters are concerned. The voters out there know something. They can tell you who the president is, that would be about 98%. About 85% would know who the vice president was. But only about half would know which party controlled the Congress and only about 10% would know the Supreme Court chief justice. There is a wide range of political information out there.
Morality Is in the Eye of the Beholder
I have a survey, taken in 1984 asking how moral people thought President Ronald Reagan was. The responses were graphed on axes of political partisanship by knowledgeability. Let's look first at the conservative Republicans in this survey. Among conservative Republicans with low information, only about 30% rated Reagan extremely moral. But about 75% of conservative Republicans with high information so rated him. Among the liberal Democrats almost none of them thought Reagan was moral at all. And the more informed the liberal Democrats were, the more immoral they thought Reagan was.That is a partisan response. You would get the same thing flipped when Bill Clinton was president, maybe with more justification at the extremely immoral end of things.
On the other hand Reagan's weakness was not in personal morality but in knowledgeability, and in another question in the same survey, even the conservative Republicans at high information didn't want to say that Reagan was "extremely" knowledgeable, so that is the limiting case, but the more knowledgeable the liberal Democrats were, the lower they rated Reagan on this issue. It really takes something like Bill Clinton's personal behavior or Ronald Reagan's knowledge of politics or maybe president George W. Bush's speaking ability to get sophisticated partisans to do anything but say the best possible or the worst possible thing about the guy, depending on how partisanship affects them.
Low Information Voters Do Not Have Strong Opinions on Many Issues
So there is this tendency for the high information people to have these polarized partisan responses to things and for the low information people not to have them. This is a very strong tendency in American politics. To show you how strong, let me talk about a National Election Studies cumulative dataset for the years 1992 to 2000 asking questions on which there are partisan differences. For example, at low information levels about 48% of both Democrats and Republicans favored fewer government services -- that is, a small majority of both party supporters wanted more government services. But at high information levels, 80% of Republicans were against more government services and about 80% of knowledgeable Democrats were against cutting government services. On issue after issue, job guarantees, abortion, government aid to blacks, U.S. relations with Russia, and self-identification as a liberal or a conservative the more knowledgeable the party supporters are the more extreme their view.
There was a similar response in a poll on possible military action against Iraq taken in the fall of 2002 before the war, with 80% of highly informed Republicans being for military action and about 75% of informed Democrats being against, but with the low information Republicans being only about 55% for a war and among low information Democrats actually about 52% for war. The high information Democrats and Republicans were extremely polarized on the question of whether going to war with Iraq was a good idea and the low information people not polarized at all.
Terror Is Just One More Partisan Issue
So in this sense there is nothing unique about the war on terror. It fits comfortably into the partisan ideological framework through which the country processes issues, at least at the level of public opinion. And the people who think we should go to war with Iraq are the people who mostly oppose abortion, who mostly want smaller government, and so forth. And the people on the other side have the opposite set of views. At the high information end it is an ideological issue and at the low information end it is not an ideological issue. Nothing is an ideological issue at the low end of information.
Who Changes Parties in National Elections? And Why?
That kind of sets the background. Now we want to get to elections. What happens in elections? I have three sets of surveys on who changes parties in national elections, where the same people were interviewed in one election and then again four years later. Because you can't ask people if they changed, that wouldn't be credible. You just ask them in 1956 who they just voted for, and them come back in 1960 and ask who they just voted for.
The elections surveyed were 1956 compared to 1960, 1972 compared to 1976, and 1992 compared to 1996. What the surveys showed was that there was much more change among the low-informed people compared to the high-informed people. The 1956-60 shift, for example, was about 32% for low-informed voters compared to only about 16% for high-informed voters. The high information people are disproportionately these partisan, polarized, Yellow Dog Democrat/Rock-ribbed Republican types who aren't going to vote for the other party no matter what.
The low information people are changing around, and changing around sometimes quite a bit. And there is other data that is a little bit more difficult to summarize that indicates that this is not just limited to these three elections, that this is a general habit.
Why do they move back and forth, on what basis? We have seen that they are not very partisan, they are not very ideological. Why and on what basis do they move back and forth? Well, a big part of it is, "It's the economy, stupid." I said at the beginning that they are very results oriented. [Presents a graph showing how well the incumbent party has done in presidential elections from Truman in 1948 to Gore in 2000, correlated to the percent change in real disposable income in the 12 months before the election. The graph showed that as disposable income went up, to a maximum of about 6%, the incumbent president tended to do better.]
The Economy Is the Top Issue for Swing Voters
It ranges from 0 to 6% in extra money in the voter's pocket. In 1984 Reagan was the incumbent president. The economy was growing at about 6%, and Reagan got 60% of the vote. That was enough to win in a landslide.
In 1980, Carter as the incumbent was running against Reagan. The economy was at 0% growth that year and Carter got a lot less of the vote, he got 45% of the vote and he lost. So there is a general trend line, that the better the economy, the better the incumbent does. These are the non-Rock-ribbed Republicans, the non-Yellow Dog Democrats, voting on the basis of results. In general, low information people are much more responsive to the economy than high information people--among the latter there is very little swing because of the performance of the economy.
These people who are not ideological are responding to results. They are not responding to excuses, like, the oil shocks caused it to happen. No, get out of here, bum! They are retrospective voters. There is a shark attack. But I didn't cause the shark attack! Get out of here! Or, alternatively, we have had a great tourist season, there were no sharks this year. Ah, good guy, let's reelect him. As if it was an omen for the future. That is how the low information people tend to vote on the economy. The evidence is pretty strong on that point.
Swing Voters Vote Against Extremism
Is there anything besides the economy? There are a couple of other things that I want to talk about. One of them is ideological moderation. I said that these low information people are not ideological. They tend to be pretty moderate, kind of middle of the road. Not strong liberals, not strong conservatives. And they like to vote for candidates who are in the middle. If they get somebody who is a strong ideologue running for president, they can vote against that person.
I want to put a number on that. Imagine a scale that is running from extremely liberal on the left to extremely conservative on the right, ranked, let us say, from -3 (very liberal) to +3 (very conservative). In every election voters are given this kind of scale and they are asked to place the candidates on the scale. In 1972 they put Richard Nixon, the Republican, as +1, moderately conservative. A little off center but not very far off center. And they put George McGovern, the Democratic candidate, at a -2. So obviously Nixon was one point closer to the center on this scale, which is an arbitrary scale, but it is the scale that is used.
According to some analysis that I have done, that one point closer to the center difference that Nixon had or that McGovern didn't have cost McGovern about 3 or 4 points at the vote. I won't say that is a rock hard estimate. But there is evidence based on this kind of data that the candidate who is farther away from the center loses points, loses vote share, at the rate of 2 or 3 points for every one point of relative distance from the center.
Again, it is the low information people who do this the most. They are the ones who are in the center, who tend not to like extremists. How exactly they do this when they are so very poorly informed I don't really know, it is kind of a mystery. When I first started showing this around people at first didn't believe it, and some still don't believe it. But it is the result I get, that the low information people tend to vote against the extremists.
Usually these extremists are identified with things that are considered extreme. For example, in 1964, Barry Goldwater was considered to be an opponent of Social Security, and with some reason. In 1972, George McGovern was called the "candidate of acid, amnesty, and abortion." Amnesty for the Vietnam draft evaders. So these sorts of slogans will capsulize for people who is the extremist and who is not. The low information swing voters tend to like moderates.
The Effect of Foreign Policy Issues on Presidential Elections
Which brings us now to the last factor that can affect presidential outcomes, voting and foreign policy. I asked a group of foreign policy experts, [UCLA faculty members] Ken Schultz, Marc Tractenberg, Barbara Koremenos, Debbie Larson and some other foreign policy experts to rate the candidates in elections for 1948 through 1992 on their foreign policy performance.
First let me give you their ratings. For 1948, almost everyone gave Truman very high marks. The Soviets had attempted a blockade of Berlin. Truman responded with the Berlin airlift, flying in supplies to prevent the Soviets from taking over Berlin. That was also the year in which the Marshall Plan was passed by Congress. It was a strong foreign policy performance.
For 1952, almost all of them gave President Truman very bad marks. That was the year of the Korean War. There were 30,000 U.S. casualties. For 1956 and 1960, nobody had very much to say. 1968 was another bad year for foreign policy performance: the Vietnam War. There were about 30,000 casualties to date (in the end there were about 60,000 casualties, but going into the war there were about 30,000). To give you an idea, the U.S. took about 500 combat deaths a week every week in 1968. That's a lot. It was unhappy times. A lot of people were unhappy about that. Johnson was the president, and he wasn't supposed to have 500 people getting killed every week.
1972 is considered a good year. That was the year that Nixon opened relations with China. All the experts gave him good marks on that one. 1980 was a bad year. That was the year of the Iran hostage crisis. The Iranian revolution had occurred in 1979. In 1980, some students in Iran seized the U.S. diplomats in Iran and held them hostage. Carter tried to send a rescue mission over there. One of our helicopters crashed into another in the staging area. Americans were killed. They didn't rescue the hostages. During the 1980 campaign Carter was negotiating for the release of the hostages. Over the weekend before the elections the negotiations broke down. They called Carter the Great Satan. It was not a good time. Everybody thought 1980 was a bad year for foreign policy.
Then the final one that got a good consensus was 1992, where Bush senior had won the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein and also the Soviet Union had broken up.
Based on that kind of an analysis, there were three election years of strong good performance for the incumbent: 1948, 1972, and 1992. And three notably bad years: 1952, 1968, and 1980. So what happened to the incumbent in those elections? In 1948, Truman netted about a 4 points gain attributable to his foreign policy successes; Nixon 4 points in 1972; and Bush senior, nothing in 1992. And that is controlling for the effect of the economy. After you take into account that the economy wasn't very good in 1992, even so, no effect for Bush senior in 1992.
Then you had the three bad years for incumbents. These averaged probably a loss of 3 points at the polls, with Carter taking a hit of minus 5 points. This is the data. It is based on expert ratings.
For six years out of fourteen there were events that were big enough to matter, and the average event mattered about 3 points. But even that is uneven. There was no effect in 1992. Was there something special about the Bush family? Was it something special about Iraq? What I would say, and I have a kind of mechanical statistical view of it, is that on average you get three points, up if its good, down if its bad. And that is what I would say to expect in 2004, but I can't tell you if they will be good or bad yet.
Is three points a lot or a little? There are about 4 presidential elections, including the most recent one, that could have been won by 3 points. Anyway, 3 points is enough to swing a lot of presidential elections. How many would have been reversed? 1968 for sure, 1976, 2000, 1960. So 3 points is quite a bit. But it is a messy estimator, as you can see, since there was one year where it failed to materialize.
30% of George Bush's Economic Record Is Made
So how does it look for Bush in 2004? Well, the record mostly isn't made yet. But it is partially made. As far as the economy goes, I didn't go into this in detail, but people don't vote on the whole four years. They tend to vote on what has happened to them lately. But they give some weight to the whole four years. A little bit of weight to the first quarter that the president is in office, a little more and a little more and a little more, until the most recent quarter gets the heaviest weight. And there is a way to estimate this statistically. As I estimate it about 30% of the economic record on which George Bush is going to be judged is made; 70% is not made. And the record that he has made so far is below average. I would say it is like a basketball game where you are 9 points down in the second quarter -- a lot can happen.
To give you an illustration of how things can change and how fast they can change, Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory in 1984 based on the economy. At this equivalent stage of Reagan's term, that is, at the end of the first quarter of 1983, Reagan's economy was dramatically worse than Bush's economy. And Reagan still had plenty of time to come back and win a landslide.
How much does the economy matter? It affects about 50% of the variance from one election to the next. About 50% of the swing from one election to the next is the economy, about 30% of that record is made, so 15% is in. And it is not very favorable to Bush.
Bush Is "Probably the Most Conservative President ... Since World War II"
On the question of ideological moderation I would say that more than 30% of Bush's position on the left-right scale is made. He is probably the most conservative president that we have had since World War II. Whether that is good or bad depends on whether you are a conservative or a liberal. To the conservatives he is a steadfast man of principle. To the liberals he is a rigid ideologue. But he is a good way away from center. He still has time to moderate, and he may well moderate. Very often presidents do get more moderate as election time approaches.
Clinton, for example, started out trying to have health care insurance. He ended up with a much more conservative approach. There is still time for Bush to moderate if he wants to do that. The other part of the equation is relative moderation. We don't know who the Democrats are going to pick. There is a long way to go. In my opinion Bush is not going to change too much. He is a steadfast, or a rigid, man, depending on how you want to put that.
The War on Terrorism and the 2004 Elections
Finally, the point that we care about, the war on terrorism. I can't tell you what is going to happen in Korea or Iraq. It is not my expertise. But I would have a few comments on what might be contingent on the way things might play out and how that might work and how Bush is positioning himself on this issue.
There are three big events that are out there that have a chance of having an impact on the election. One is the reconstruction of Iraq. It is a mess, it doesn't look good. [Professor] Ken Schultz made a good comment. He said that more people were going to be killed in the reconstruction than in the war, and I think we have a good chance to have that happen. There were about 140 casualties in the war; there have been 60 more or so afterwards. So we are easily going to have more casualties, deaths, in the reconstruction than in the war. And my guess about how this is going to play politically is that there is a drip drip drip element to casualties in peace, versus the war. 140 casualties in a war is not a lot; 200 or 300 casualties during peace, that could be a lot, drip drip drip. There could be riots, demonstrations against us in Baghdad. I wouldn't be surprised if France got into the act. There is a lot of downside potential and I don't see a lot of upside potential in that for Bush.
The second event that I would mention is North Korea. I'd say it is probably on a pretty good political track there. The Chinese don't want to have nuclear weapons and missiles next to them. Politically it doesn't look bad. If Bush were not paying a lot of attention to it it would look bad, but I don't see why he can't at least neutralize that, and quite possibly come out with a big victory. If he manages to get North Korea disarmed by 2004, that would look very good.
The third thing is the most interesting, the most speculative. Terrorism. If there are bombings in shopping malls, churches blowing up, how would that play? I think it would play pro-Bush. Partly because the Republicans are more trusted on terror. And for terror there really is not a right policy. What are you going to do? The Republicans would get the benefit out of that. The Democrats would of course try to argue that Bush fought the wrong war in Iraq and if he had spent a little more money on homeland defense these terror attacks wouldn't be happening. But how that will play?
Let me supplement this with a small bit of data. In Israel, Ariel Sharon, a right-wing politician, was elected on a platform that he would clean up the mess. It didn't work out that way. There have been this whole series of really serious terror attacks killing some 750 persons. And Sharon was reelected in a landslide. The right wing in Israel, as in the United States, is more trusted to deal with terror, even if it is not working out very well at the moment.
So the foreign policy situation has different components, and they could play out differently. The question the Democrats are asking themselves is, could a bad economy swamp any kind of good foreign policy performance on terror? I think it could, based on these numbers. Every point of economic performance gets you 2 points of the vote. It is easy to imagine a 3 percentage point swing downward in disposable income, which would translate to Bush easily losing 5, 6, or 7 points on the economy -- or gain that many on the economy is the economy was moving upward.
In comparison, according to the data I have, the biggest effect anybody has gotten since 1948 on foreign policy questions is Carter's negative of 5 points. So I think a big economic effect could swamp a big terror effect. These are the parameters to watch.
Can Bush Be Reelected with His Assertive Foreign Policy?
In a more speculative vein I wanted to talk about U.S. and the world, post-9/11. How is that going to play out? The big question is how much domestic support there is going to be for the kind of assertive foreign policy that we have had under Bush. How resilient is that? What I would say is that domestic politics is not going to get in the way of an assertive foreign policy of the kind that we have had since 9/11, provided that the assertive policy is successful. If Bush continues to have success with foreign policy, which to date he has -- he won the war in Afghanistan, is perceived to have won a victory over terror in Iraq -- I don't think that he will be undermined domestically, barring a big economic upset.
My reason for thinking this comes out of the kind of analysis I have been doing on the low information voters especially. They are results oriented. If the president of the United States can get benefits for the United States using the military at low cost, fine. You are not going to have an ideological response where the voters say, Oh, the UN didn't support it! High information Democrats, yes, but as we saw, that is just a part of the electorate, not the biggest part of the electorate. As long as the president is able to produce good results using the military I don't think that the Democrats can get in the way.
The Democrats Have Good Reason to Feign Support for Bush, No Matter What the Polls Say
And I would like to talk about how much they haven't gotten in the way. At the time of Bush's first Iraq resolution in October of 2002, President Bush asked the Senate and the House to vote to authorize use of force in Iraq even if the UN did not endorse the use of force. The vote on that in each house was about 75-25. Almost all the Republicans went for it. About half the Democrats went for it. This is a little bit speculative, but I don't believe that half of the Democrats believed in that resolution. They saw that Bush was popular and felt they had to vote for it. They were afraid not to vote for it. It wasn't their honest opinion about what should happen. They were laying low. They were ducking.
There are a few things that are striking about that. First, it was against their better judgment. Second, though, they were also going against the polls. The in the polls at that time, when they asked people, do you think the United States should invade Iraq and make Saddam Hussein give up his weapons of mass destruction? there would be broad support for that. But if you would say, do you think the United States should try to make him give up his weapons of mass destruction without UN support? only about 30% said yes. About 60-65% opposed that -- 60-65% of the American public was against Bush. And yet 75% of Congress voted for, out of fear of public opinion. How does that add up?
The way it adds up, I think, is with these low information voters. On polls if you say, should the U.S. go in without the UN, they answer, Oh, no, it should be with the UN. They say that they didn't want to go in without the UN, but they didn't really have very much understanding about it. And what the Democrats feared was that if they voted against Bush and nominally on the side of public opinion, that in the election that was coming up Bush would come into the district or their opponent would make an issue of their vote, saying, This Representative didn't support the president or this Senator didn't support the president on his Iraq resolution. And voters would have sided with that. They would have said, you should have supported the president.
I think the Senators' and the House members' calculations were correct. That even though the public said it wanted to have a UN resolution, they would even more strongly want to support the president in a time of crisis. My opinion is that the Democrats who went against their better judgment were correctly following a good reading of public opinion.
Here is a quote from a recent issue of the Washington Post:
"More than a dozen Democrats who requested anonymity have told the Washington Post that members who opposed the president's strategy to confront Iraq are torn but nonetheless support it because they fear a backlash from voters. A top legislative strategist said that every House Democrat who faces a tough reelection plans to vote for the Bush resolution."
More recently, here is an item from the Washington Post just last week. The Bush justification for going to war with Iraq was to get the weapons of mass destruction, which have not been found. This is an embarrassment to the U.S. in Europe, but not in the United States. A Washington Post reporter last week talked to a bunch of Congressmen and asked them what's going on. The headline is "No Political Fallout for Bush on Weapons." It reads:
"Before the war, for example, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) accused the administration of exaggerating Iraq's nuclear capabilities.... This week, Pelosi said it is 'difficult to understand' why the weapons can't be found. Yet she did not seem concerned about whether any are found. 'I am sort of agnostic on it; that is to say, maybe they are there,' Pelosi said. 'I salute the president for the goal of removing weapons of mass destruction.'"
So I don't think the Democrats are going to stand up against an assertive, apparently successful, policy, although I would add a big caveat on this. Even if Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats were planning to oppose Bush on this, why do it now? Maybe the weapons of mass destruction will be found tomorrow. If they are, better to have saluted him. But if it gets too close to the election and they still haven't been found, and Saddam Hussein hasn't been found, and so on, there is plenty of time for them to change their opinion -- and they may.
I say they may because they will make the same kind of calculation then as they are making now. Their calculation now is, we don't want to get in the way of public opinion. If it gets close to 2004 and things look good on the terror front they will continue to make that calculation. On the other hand you should be very confident that if things look bad on the terror front they will change that position.
The political situation is really a military situation. As long as U.S. policy remains militarily effective, as long as the military can perform as well in other places as it did in Afghanistan and in Iraq, I really doubt that you are going to see domestic opposition getting in the way. The ideological Democrats would like to get in the way but I don't think that they will.
A Lesson from the Vietnam War on the Pitfalls of Partisan Alignments
Conservatives may be heartened by this. Liberals may be disappointed by this. Let me give you a reason why everybody should be a little concerned about it, conservatives as well. It goes back to the Vietnam War, an aspect of which could replay itself. The Vietnam War was a war in which, according to stereotype, the United States got sort of half involved. Enough to take a lot of casualties but not enough to win. That is the stereotype. How did that happen? I have been thinking about this for a long time. I have studied it and I have written about it and I am going to tell you my considered speculation. The Democrats did not want to fight that war.
They were in power. Kennedy was the president who started us in Vietnam, Johnson was the president taking us into Vietnam on a large scale. Neither one of them wanted to do it. Here is a quote from Richard Revere's book on Kennedy, describing an incident in the White House: "That evening over a drink Kennedy brought up Vietnam again... 'We don't have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at almost any point. But I can't give up a piece of territory like that to the communists and then go the American people and get reelected.'"
Kennedy thought the war was absurd, but he thought that he would be criticized for losing Vietnam if he gave it up. And so he went in, not all out but half hearted, because he didn't want to go in but he was afraid not to go in.
Johnson saw it the same way. Here are some quotes from Johnson from tape recordings. Johnson: "We haven't got any mothers that will go with us to a war." He also says "I don't think the people of this country know much about Vietnam.... They'd impeach a president, though, that would run out, wouldn't they?"
The American people don't want a war, but they would impeach a president who doesn't have a war. And I think that's right. And I don't think it is just the low information voters. That brings us back to partisanship. Because I think that both Kennedy and Johnson would have been attacked by the Republicans if they had "lost Vietnam." Both Kennedy and Johnson felt that. They didn't feel that voters by themselves would rise up but they felt they would be encouraged to rise up and then would respond.
A little bit later in another context Johnson is complaining and he responds to the campus protesters: "Don't pay any attention to the little shits on the campus. The great beast is the reactionary elephants in the country." That is, the Republicans. Johnson lived in fear of being attacked for having lost Vietnam. He thought he would be impeached over it. McNamaraurges him to educate the country so the people will come around. Johnson says, "If I try to educate the country into having a war, they will call me a war monger. If I go in and try to fight a war and get Americans killed, they are going to attack me for getting some Americans killed. I cannot win."
I think that is correct. And I think it is a problem for liberals and conservatives. Because the numbers are that Republicans are trusted on defense; the Democrats are not, as much. So the Democrats feel that they have to act really tough. Suppose a war comes along that we really should pass on. The Republicans would have the credibility to do that. The Democrats might do what they did in Vietnam. I wouldn't predict the exact pathology of the Vietnam War period would repeat, but that is the kind of pathology that you can get when you have got partisan politics to the hilt, low information voters, and high stakes.
So I do think that these are perilous times. I don't predict disaster but I see dangers of how things can turn out under the combination of blind partisanship, low information voters, and high stakes.
Published: Thursday, June 05, 2003
© 2014. The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.