In this post Kevin Drum wades into the online debate about why new poll numbers out yesterday show public approval of the Iraq war down substantial since election day. He notes that fellow blogger David Adesnik reacted in puzzlement to these new numbers ...
I have to admit I'm somewhat puzzled by the numbers. Why were the American public so much more confident [in] Bush on election day? The media have generally presented the post-election battle in Fallujah as victory for our side....Steve Sturm's take on all of this is that America supported the first Iraq war (to get rid of Saddam's WMDs) but not the second (to promote democracy in Iraq).
Kevin's answer, which I think is certainly correct, <$Ad$>is that there's no real mystery. With a few bumps and wiggles along the way, public support both the conduct of the war and the very idea of going to war has basically been heading south from the day the war ended. "Conservatives seem to think that Americans like wars.," writes Kevin, "They don't. They like winning wars. As it becomes ever clearer that Bush doesn't have a winning strategy in Iraq, support continues to drop. It's pretty easy to understand."
But I have another explanation, one that I think is complementary to Kevin's, but adds something to it.
During the election, I always thought that the dynamics of the campaign were providing what we might call an artificial floor for support for the war -- both at the level of its management and the whole idea of going to war in the first place.
Here's what I mean -- it comes down to an issue of cognitive dissonance.
The dead-even political polarization of America remains the defining fact of our politics. Close to 50% of Americans were dead set on voting for President Bush almost no matter what. Or they were dead set on voting against John Kerry. For our purposes, it's the same difference.
I think that many Bush supporters simply couldn't take stock of the full measure of the screw-up in Iraq during the election because doing so would have conflicted their support for President Bush. Iraq and the war on terror so defined this election that support for the war and the president who led us into it simply couldn't be pried apart.
Perhaps it wasn't so internalized. During the slugfest of the campaign supporting Bush just meant supporting the war and this is what people told pollsters when they were asked, because one question was almost a proxy for the other.
You can even do a thought experiment by imagining how many conservatives during election season would have been so staunch in their support for the war if it were being fought under a President Gore or a President Clinton. The question all but answers itself.
In any case, I think what has happened is that the end of the campaign season has de
partisanized the war -- at least to a measurable extent -- and folks who were emotionally and intellectually committed to reelecting the president (just as there were people on the other side with similar commitments) are now freer to see the situation in Iraq a bit more on its own terms.