A View From The Handbasket

Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Censure debate reveals more of Dems' Defeat 2006 plans
Posted by neros_fiddle at 12:23 PM


What we are seeing play out in the Senate is an object lesson in exactly why the Democrats are totally impotent in the face of a President with approval ratings in the mid-30s.

Read it and weep:

Many Democrats, while sympathetic to Feingold's maneuver, appeared to be distancing themselves from his resolution yesterday, wary of polls showing that a majority of Americans side with the president on wiretapping tactics.


Let's talk about those polls for a moment. It's quite difficult to make sense of them, because wording is even more important than usual in this case. (If worded right, a majority will express the desire to impeach Bush over this issue -- I consider that poll an outlier, but interesting nevertheless.) A good example is a January poll done by NYT/CBS.

First, here's the data from the question: "After 9/11, President Bush authorized government wiretaps on some phone calls in the U.S. without getting court warrants, saying this was necessary to reduce the threat of terrorism. Do you approve or disapprove of this?"

Approve53%
Disapprove46%
No opinion1%


Here's the fun part. Now we word the question like this: "After 9/11, George W. Bush authorized government wiretaps on some phone calls in the U.S. without getting court warrants. Do you approve or disapprove of this?"

Approve46%
Disapprove50%
No opinion3%


Without the "terrorism" boogeyman in the equation, the approval number goes down seven percent and disapprove goes up four. (The margin of error for this poll is +/-3%.) What does this tell us? That the message is vitally important. The electorate is ready to defend civil liberties if the issue is framed properly.

The numbers get even more interesting if you look beyond the present to the possible future. In response to the question, "Which concerns you more -- that the government will fail to enact strong anti-terrorism laws or that the government will enact new anti-terrorism laws which will excessively restrict the average person's civil liberties?"

Fail to enact40%
Enact laws that restrict48%
Both2%
Neither2%
No opinion8%


The people want to see someone take the lead in defending basic freedoms. The margin isn't huge, but it's by no means a politically suicidal position to take, especially if it's framed as a larger issue than just the FISA case -- the public is worried that Bush is disposed to go too far, and a censure could successfully be presented as a warning not to do that.

Finally, let's look at the results of the question: "How concerned are about losing some of your civil liberties as a result of the measures enacted by the Bush Administration to fight terrorism?"

Very34%
Somewhat30%
Not very17%
Not at all18%
No opinion1%


A 64% majority is concerned about their civil liberties, even when the magic words "fight terrorism" are used. Only 35% are resting easy. This suggests standing up for civil liberties would be a popular move.

So what are the Senate Democrats afraid of? It's those first two questions. The polls themselves aren't the problem, the problem is that the Dems think the Republicans are better at presenting a unified, compelling message. That the talking point "The Democrats want to censure the President for trying to protect you" is more powerful than "The President broke the law that protects your freedom," despite near-universal agreement outside the White House that the President violated FISA (even the Republicans in the Senate tacitly admit as much).

(It's not entirely out of place to mention here that if John Kerry had had the balls to vote against the Iraq war resolution instead of caving to polling strategies, he could well be President today. Is it so outrageous to suggest that voting against censure could be equally damaging to a candidate in '08?)

They're not afraid of the polls or of the Republicans. They're scared of their own inability to stand up and lead. If they're this paralyzed when the President has such terrible approval ratings, then how can they hope to regain power?

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