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In Dubya We Trust?

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As November 7th draws near, we'll read a lot about the issues. Hear they're likely to be: Iraq, national security, healthcare, immigration, and gasoline prices, among others. But, in reality, there's only one issue: Do you trust George Bush?

The issue of trust has been there all along. Now the President, alarmed by the prospect of Republicans' losing control of Congress, has made it a key issue. During recent campaign stops he's argued that Democrats can't be relied upon to wage a "tough" war on terrorists; implied that only Republicans could be trusted. Specifically one Republican: George W. Bush.

I don't trust President Bush. And I'm not alone. The September 26th Gallup poll indicated the majority of Americans do not trust the executive branch of the government. Only 46 percent of Americans have "a great deal or fair amount of trust and confidence" in the White House; the lowest level since the darkest days of the Nixon Administration.

It's not difficult to understand why George Bush has lost the trust of the American people. We only have to look at the woeful record of his Administration: failure to protect the nation; failure to help average Americans; and failure to address major national problems, among other shortcomings.

As fresh evidence emerges, it's clear that in the period prior to 9/11 the President and his advisers did not take seriously warnings of an attack by Al Qaeda. It's also apparent the war in Iraq was an epoch miscalculation, a blunder that made America less safe by fueling the flames of terrorism. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any area of foreign policy where the Bush Administration has been successful. National security is hardly their strong suit.

Bush domestic policies have also failed. The plight of the average American is demonstrably worse than it was at the end of the Clinton Administration. When it comes to global issues, such as climate change, President Bush and the Republican Party have a similar record of non-accomplishment.

Based upon this litany of failures, what's remarkable is not that the Bush Administration has lost the confidence of the nation, it's that anyone trusts them at all. Yet, The September 13th Gallup poll informs us that 87 percent of Republicans are inclined favorably towards Bush and company-as compared to 18 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of Independents. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Bush's base trusts him to do the right thing.

This dramatic polarization of the electorate was the subject of a recent New York Times Op-Ed by Mark Halperin. He observed that the 2006 election strategy formulated by Karl Rove, and embraced by the Bush Administration, is simple and effective: Motivate the GOP conservative base to turn out to vote by taking a series of actions that fire them up. Rove understands that larger numbers of voters will turn out to vote for something than will those whose motivation is negative.

At this moment, more voters self-identify as conservatives, 37 percent, than as liberals, 21 percent. The Rove strategy argues the GOP will retain enough seats in Congress to stay in power by getting their conservative voters to turn out, splitting the moderate vote, and ignoring liberals. So the Administration takes a hard line. Bush is obdurate because it motivates his conservative base.

In contrast, the Democratic strategy has been to motivate both moderates and liberals to vote. This leads to a more ambiguous agenda. One that often infuriates liberals.

National Security is a prime example of the two competing strategies. Republicans take a hard line: Bush's claims the U.S. is winning the war on terror; therefore, we must "stay the course" in Iraq. This positive message appeals to conservative voters who trust the President. In contrast, the Democratic message is negative: the U.S. is losing the war on terror and Iraq was a ghastly mistake. Halperin argues that this approach, while true, is less likely to motivate Democrats to go to the polls.

Following this logic, the key to the November 7th election will be the 42 percent of the electorate who say they are independents. Even if the GOP gets out their entire conservative base, while Democrats marshal a smaller percentage of liberals, the election will be decided by independents. The October 13th Gallup Poll indicates that "likely voters" prefer the generic congressional Democrat to the generic Republican on all issues. The strongest Democratic showing since 9/11. An indication that in the 2006 mid-term election, Republicans will not split the independent vote: dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration will cause most swing voters to vote against the GOP.

In the final analysis, the outcome of the 2006 election will be decided by whether or not Americans trust George Bush. For this reason, Democrats will win because only Republicans continue to trust Dubya.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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