The White House reaction to Richard Clarke's book and his testimony before the Sept. 11 commission has been full-tilt. Even the first lady has come out to dismiss Clarke's charges that President Bush failed to take appropriate steps to deal with the terrorist threat from al Qaeda before Sept. 11, 2001.
But one place where the Clarke book, Against All Enemies, has fallen flat is in the polls. There has not been widespread public acceptance of Clarke's criticism even as his book is flying to the top of the bestseller lists.
This is similar to what happened in the aftermath of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's critical views of the administration, as related in Ron Suskind's recent book, The Price of Loyalty. O'Neill stated that Bush was planning to go to war against Iraq from the moment he was elected. Or when John J. DiIulio Jr., the former director of Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, in an Esquire article by Suskind called the Bush White House a bunch of "Mayberry Machiavellis" who blindly ignored critics while pursuing simplistic ideas with no sense of the damage being done by their economic policies. The lasting political fallout on the administration? Negligible.
Why don't these comments, authored by Bush administration insiders, make a dent in the president's standing with American voters? The reaction to Clarke's book holds some clues.
Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center's polling operation, says more than 90 percent of Americans know something about Clarke's charges and 42 percent say they heard a lot about it. But the people who took the criticism most deeply to heart are people who don't like Bush in the first place. Those who support the president paid attention to the critique but did not reach the point of being persuaded to abandon the incumbent.
"If you look at our survey, even the swing voters have gone down in their opinion of Bush's handling of the [the war on terror], but they don't move away from him and to (presumptive Democratic nominee John) Kerry," said Doherty. "Clarke injected doubt — people are saying 'wait a minute,' but they are not deciding to jump ship."
And that may be the Clarke book's biggest damage to the administration: It caused Americans to reconsider their thinking about Bush's handling of the terror attacks. A Newsweek poll found that the president's approval rating on his handling of terrorism and homeland security is down from 65 percent a month ago to 57 percent today. And only 25 percent believe that military action by the United States in Iraq is likely decrease the likelihood of future terrorist attacks.
In fact, a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found that the level of trust Americans have in the president has fallen to 52 percent, which is the lowest ever for President Bush in the history of that poll.
Beyond that dent, however, all the Clarke book appears to have done is to stir the base of political voters on the left and the right by confirming previously held opinions. There is little evidence that it has changed any minds. People who describe themselves as independent voters are evenly split on the truth of Clarke's charges.
That comes through in a USA Today/Gallup poll. Of those questioned, 67 percent of Americans don't think there is anything Bush could have done to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. And yet 53 percent of the poll's respondents say the administration is "covering up something." The numbers also show an even split between people who believe Clarke (44 percent) and people who believe the Bush denial of Clarke's charges (46 percent).
If people don't think the Bush administration could have done anything to stop the terrorists, then they may dismiss Clarke's criticism as a big stir about very little. For example, even after Republican voters hear Clarke's arguments, 83 percent of them tell pollsters they agree with the president's handling of the terrorist threat. Democrats offer a mirror image; they hear Clarke's arguments and 76 percent decide the president failed in his handling of the terrorist threat.
The real kicker to this is that Bush's popularity has actually climbed since Clarke made his debut on CBS' 60 Minutes and the controversy became the center of political conversation.
His job approval rating is up. And in the Gallup Poll, the president has pulled ahead of Kerry by 49 to 46 percent after trailing by 5 points just three weeks ago. Much of the turnaround is likely due to the multi-million-dollar Bush-Cheney television ads in selected states. And the president was bound to see some upturn in his poll numbers after the end of the bashing the Democrats gave the White House during the primaries and caucuses.
One poll does show the president losing some ground. Fox News had Bush leading Kerry by three points before the Clarke brouhaha and now Bush trails by three, 47 to 44 percent. But that is not what one could call major damage after the daily, persistent and loud fight over the charges in Clarke's book.
The deep political split between left and right in the country creates a high hurdle for any book to be able to change minds. So far the Clarke book has not sailed above the towers of political partisanship.