War Protests Fail to Mirror Poll Numbers

If the war in Iraq is so unpopular, why aren't more people in the streets protesting it? The war does not seem to stir the public's emotion in the same way the Vietnam conflict did. What are we seeing in the polls?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

President Bush has been arguing this week in a series of speeches that success is possible in Iraq. Polls have continued to show public disapproval of his handling of the war. But despite all of the opposition, there is little consensus about how to resolve the conflict. A majority of Americans continues to oppose an immediate pullout, and that ambivalence is complicating the politics of the issue.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

On Tuesday, at his White House press conference, President Bush tried again to show that he wasn't out of touch with how the public feels about Iraq. War causes trauma, the president said. I understand that.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: It creates a sense of concern amongst our people. And that makes sense, and I know that. And one of the reasons why it's important for me to continue to speak out and explain why we have a strategy for victory, why we can succeed.

LIASSON: Convincing Americans that Mr. Bush has a strategy to succeed in Iraq and that it can work is the main goal of the White House public relations effort. It's based on the work of a pair of political scientists from Duke University. The White House hired one of the pair, Peter Feaver. The other, Christopher Gelpi, is still at Duke.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER F. GELPI (Duke University): Our research does indicate that if the public believes that the mission will ultimately succeed, that they'll be willing to pay significant costs and still support the mission. What our research doesn't really demonstrate is that presidential speeches can persuade the public that the mission will succeed.

LIASSON: So those big plan for victory signs at the president's Wheeling, West Virginia rally yesterday mean a lot less than the facts on the ground the public sees from Iraq on their television screens.

Mr. PETER D. HART (Peter D. Hart Research Associates): The problem is, you see purple fingers very rarely, and you see the violence every day.

LIASSON: Democratic pollster Peter Hart surveys voters for the Wall Street Journal and NBC. He says when the facts on the ground are smiling Iraqis dipping their fingers in purple ink at the ballot box, Americans' optimism about the war goes up. But when those facts are stories of Sunnis and Shiites killing each other, Americans' disenchantment grows. But still, Hart says, although big majorities have decided the war is not worth the cost in American lives, they don't want to withdraw right away.

Mr. HART: Even in our NBC/Wall Street Journal question, do you think that we should have immediate and orderly withdrawal, the public opposed that by 66 to 30. When they hear the president saying more of the same, we'll continue on, the public has looked at this and they've said it isn't working. Show us a different avenue. And, to me, the president really has a short period of time in which to make this adjustment.

Otherwise, I think he's going to end up looking more like Lyndon Johnson in his final two years in the White House.

LIASSON: During Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson lost the support of his own party, and that hasn't happened yet to President Bush. There are other big differences. There's no draft. American casualties are a tiny fraction of what they were in Vietnam. And the country is more conservative now, the impact of the 9/11 attacks still powerful.

That's part of the reason why there haven't been the same kind of huge antiwar street demonstrations there were against the Vietnam War, and, says Peter Hart, it's why so few Democratic challengers are running on a platform of immediate withdrawal proposed by Democratic Congressman John Murtha.

Mr. HART: You don't want to be in lockstep with Murtha, and you don't want to be in lockstep with the president. What you want to do is find a new way out.

LIASSON: But finding a new way out of Iraq has been difficult. Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio says his party's candidates have also had trouble defining a comfortable political position on the war.

Mr. TONY FABRIZIO (Republican pollster): When a Republican decides to stray too far from his base on this issue, meaning distancing himself from the war and the president, he runs the risk of depressing turnout in this off-year election because he disenfranchises his base.

Conversely, if the Republicans in a very competitive district or state, he runs the risk of alienating potential swing voters by clinging too closely to the president and his position. This is a rock and a hard place situation if there ever was one.

LIASSON: Competitive states and competitive districts are the only battlegrounds that count in this year's midterm elections. The war may be very popular in solid Republican districts. An immediate pullout may have lots of support in solid Democratic districts. But the 2006 races are not a national election. There are several dozen hard-fought races for House and Senate, where public opinion about the war does not provide a clear guide for political candidates.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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