Politics with Ron Elving: Bush Back to D.C.

President Bush heads back to the nation's capital this week, and returns to a very different atmosphere from the one he left earlier this summer. His approval numbers have dropped to the lowest level of his presidency, and so has public support for his Iraq strategy. Alex Chadwick talks with NPR senior Washington, D.C. editor Ron Elving.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick,

President Bush is taking another break from his Texas vacation. He's in California and Arizona today talking up the Medicare prescription drug benefit. Later this week, Mr. Bush goes back to Washington and returns to a very different political atmosphere than the one he left a month ago. His approval numbers in opinion polls have dropped, as has general support for his Iraq strategy. Joining us is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

Ron, the news out of Iraq on the constitutional front is not good.

RON ELVING reporting:

Well, the problem is you could probably say that the news could not be worse, Alex. They could not reach an agreement with the Sunnis and this was the key, in many respects, to the prospects for President Bush's policy and strategy in Iraq. There are really two big things at stake here for him. One is the democracy process in Iraq and the other is the politics of war support in America. We wanted this constitution, the United States government did, because we wanted it to be a big turnaround for Sunni involvement in the government in that country, and instead, we have the Sunnis in full rebellion against the draft document. So they're going to have a ratification vote in October, and the Sunnis could either spike the constitution if they can get a two-thirds vote against it in three provinces--and they have a majority in four--or perhaps, just as bad, they could ratify the constitution over Sunni objections and that could lead to an intensified insurgency.

So as you said earlier, back home, the president has seen his Iraq policy approval drop below 40 percent in the polls, below 40 percent. His own job approval in the Gallup has dropped to an all-time low. So he needs to convince people we're winning in Iraq, that Iraq will improve enough so that we can leave and do it soon and if he's going to build back his support for the war, he really needs that constitution process to work.

CHADWICK: You know, Ron, what I read in the papers and online is a lot of people saying, `Well, where are the Democrats here?'

ELVING: The Democrats have not articulated a clear alternative. This may not come as a big surprise to you. They have not, and they are not likely to do so. First, there is no leader of the national Democratic Party. It's not Howard Dean, it's not John Kerry, it's not Hillary Clinton, at least not yet. There's no leader and there's no process to choose one until 2008. So they have no leader and they have no process for one, and they have no process for actually coming up with an alternative policy. If we were Great Britain, the party out of power would elect a parliamentary leader who'd be their shadow prime minister and he or she would articulate policy for the out party, but we don't have that.

CHADWICK: Well, we don't have that, but nothing's preventing Senator Clinton and others from getting up this last week and saying, `This is what I think we should do.'

ELVING: A few of them have. Senator Russ Feingold from Wisconsin has said let's set a target date for getting out and thrown out the figure of December 2006. But of course, while some people think that's a great idea, it doesn't unite the party because other people are going to say that's way too long to wait or it's too soon to pull out or it's just a bad idea to set a date at all. And that's what happens when you propose a compromise; nobody's perfectly happy with it, so everybody takes aim at it. Down the road, of course, that's not to say we won't end up with something very much like what Russ Feingold is proposing. In the end, compromises work.

CHADWICK: But Iraq is going to be on the agenda as Mr. Bush comes back to work.

ELVING: It won't be on the formal agenda, Alex, but it will be on everyone's mind and it will be in the floor speeches that the members make and it will be on the cloakrooms where members talk to each other and sometimes say what they really mean.

CHADWICK: OK. Thanks very much, NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. You can read his column, Watching Washington, at our Web site, npr.org.

Ron, thank you again.

ELVING: Thank you, Alex.

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