President Bush pauses during remarks at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Nov. 30, 2005.
When President Bush outlined his "plan for victory" in Iraq at the U.S. Naval Academy this week he may have been reaching out to all Americans, but his real aim was to grab about 15 percent of them.
The president's latest call to arms was specifically aimed at people who supported him and the war in 2004 but who have since had serious doubts about both.
The polls tell us that more than 60 percent of Americans now disapprove of the president's handling of the war. But of course that doesn't mean they all disapprove in the same way or for the same reasons.
Most of those on the thumbs-down side of the war question now think it was a mistake to invade Iraq from the start, the product of bad intelligence and very possibly of bad faith as well. This group is highly unlikely to be reconciled to the war, no matter what President Bush does or says.
Knowing this, the president and his strategists are concentrating on that smaller fraction within the disapproving majority. This group thinks the war was and is necessary, but wants it conducted differently. Some would like to see more U.S. troops sent in to do the job with a broader range of weapons and tactics. Others would just like fewer U.S. casualties and more signs of visible progress.
This group stands poised between the firmer opponents of the war and the firmer supporters — those who have never wavered in their commitment to staying the course. These intermediates may not represent more than 15 percent of the country, but that's about the difference between Mr. Bush's approval rating a year ago (right after he won his second term) and now. It also approximates the decline we have seen in support for the war itself in polls taken a year ago and now.
The defection of these Americans — perhaps one voter in six — has pulled the Iraq war down from a near 50-50 split in the polls to the current ratio of about 3-2 opposed. That drops Iraq officially into the unhappy category of "unpopular war." And we all know how history remembers presidents held responsible for unpopular wars.
Moreover, if these numbers hold, it's hard to imagine the Republican majorities in Congress escaping serious erosion in the elections of 2006. The prospect of a Democratic takeover in one chamber looms. And if even one chamber suddenly has Democrats running its committees, we will see an explosion of congressional investigations into every aspect of the Bush administration — beginning with the war in Iraq.
By the same theory, if this same 15-percent group could be lured back to supporting President Bush and the war, the "comeback kid" dynamic could dominate his second term. This would be enormously empowering for Republicans and would practically guarantee their continued control of Congress in the elections of 2006 and beyond.
Until the speech at Annapolis, the White House had been banking on re-energizing its base by attacking the war's critics. Experience has taught the president's men that when he's on the ropes, his best recovery mode is a frontal assault (think of the South Carolina primary in 2000, when he went after rival John McCain). Experience has also taught that when the flak includes friendly fire from one's own ranks (such as the Republicans in the Senate), the best response is to lash out at old, shared enemies (such as Democrats in the Senate).
Democrats make this easy, when their main voices protesting the president are those of old blue-state warhorses like Ted Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts. The White House is all too eager for any rematch with Kerry, reminding everyone how that mano a mano turned out.
It gets tricky, however, when the mix of voices is less predictable. That's why Congressman John Murtha's (D-PA) decision to go public with his exasperation over the war knocked everyone in Washington off their game. As a decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam and Korea and an avatar of coal-country Pennsylvania patriotism, Murtha could not be dismissed as one more coastal liberal.
It was Murtha's sudden rise as a spokesman for withdrawal that forced this week's shift in the administration's tactics. Murtha understands all those Americans who stand between the two political parties and no longer identify easily with either. He speaks for those who supported the war in concept but now question it in practice, especially in view of increasing U.S. casualties.
This is substantially the same intermediate group that Mr. Bush needs to reclaim in order to salvage his presidency. The pitched battle for their loyalty has just begun.