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Jewish World Review Sept. 29, 2003 / 3 Tishrei, 5764

Michael Barone

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Reading the reversals |
History doesn't move in straight lines. Things go that way for a while, and then there is a reversal--and perhaps another reversal. The hard thing about understanding history as it happens is distinguishing those reversals that turn out to be significant from the zigs that will be followed by zags. Last week was filled with reversals. Which ones will turn out to be significant?

The reversal at the United Nations. Old media reported George W. Bush's speech to the United Nations as a reversal, a concession by Bush that he must seek support from those who opposed an 18th Security Council resolution on Iraq. But it was not Bush who changed course. He stoutly defended the action of the United States, Britain, Australia, and Poland to enforce one resolution Iraq defied (1441) on the authority of another (678) justifying action against Iraq to enforce "all subsequent relevant resolutions." The nations that changed course at the United Nations last week were France and Germany. France announced it would not veto a resolution sought by the United States to open the door to more U.N. aid. Germany announced that it would cooperate with the United States on Iraq. And U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said that the U.N. should consider changing its rules to authorize pre-emptive military action against nations that support terrorism. These three are all moving Bush's way, not the other way around. Those reversals seem likely to be significant.

The reversal in the polls. Last week's Gallup Poll showed new entrant Wesley Clark leading the Democratic presidential field and leading Bush in a general election. This is a double reversal. Howard Dean had been the Democrat zooming to the top of the field; now we see something like a statistical tie, with Clark apparently a contender. Similarly, this is the first time Bush has trailed a specific (as opposed to generic) Democrat. But there is reason for caution here. The Gallup sample seems to be disproportionately Democratic (48 percent of respondents passed the screen as Democratic-primary voters), and it puts Bush's job rating at the lower end of the 49-percent-to-59-percent range in polls taken over the past month.

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Those results taken together suggest that Bush's current standing is similar to the Republicans' 51-percent-to-46-percent lead in the 2002 House elections. As Bush campaign staffers point out, at this point in their re-election cycles Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan had lower job ratings and ran worse in pairings against leading opposition party candidates. Dean and Clark are little known to the public and are prone to self-contradiction and misstatements--Dean on Israeli-Palestinian policy, Clark on whether he would have supported the Iraq war resolution and whether the Bush White House urged him to link Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda. Candidates prone to self-contradictions and misstatements are usually heavily penalized in the rapid hurly-burly of the primary season or, if they make it there, in the general election campaign. These reversals could be significant, but don't bet the house on it.

The fact is that the electorate remains closely divided between the two parties, with strong feelings on both sides. Neither the Democratic nominee nor Bush is likely to receive much less than 45 percent of the vote or much more than 55 percent. Reversals within this narrow margin, in polls with error margins of plus or minus 4 percent, should not be taken too seriously.

The 11-0 reversal of the Ninth Circuit decision postponing the California recall election. Much has been made of recent polls showing a narrowing margin for recalling Gov. Gray Davis. But polls can't predict turnout. In 2002, 7.5 million California registered voters voted for governor and 7.7 million registered voters did not. My guess is that some of the 7.5 million won't vote this time, mostly Democrats disillusioned with Davis, and that some of the 7.7 million will vote, mostly Republicans and independents. That would be bad news for Davis and Democrat Cruz Bustamante and good news for Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who performed well in the debate last week. Count this reversal as significant.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone