Absent a discernible trajectory of progress, the American people are giving up on the occupation. In last week's CBS News/New York Times poll, 59 percent of respondents said the war was going badly, and just 37 percent approved of President Bush's handling of Iraq. A Gallup poll showed six in 10 Americans favoring full or partial withdrawal of U.S. forces.
These figures already match the polling in the middle and late years of the war in Vietnam -- even though that war was fought with vastly higher casualties and a conscript army. In a series of polls taken in November and December of 1969, the Gallup Organization found that 49 percent of Americans favored a withdrawal of U.S. forces and 78 percent believed that the Nixon administration's rate of withdrawal was "too slow." But there was one other crucial finding: 77 percent disapproved of the antiwar demonstrations, which were then at their height.
That disapproval was key to Nixon's political strategy. He didn't so much defend the war as attack its critics, making common cause with what he termed the "silent majority" against a mainstream movement with a large, raucous and sometimes senseless fringe. When Nixon won reelection in a landslide, it was clear that the strategy had worked -- and it has been fundamental Republican strategy ever since. Though the public sides with the Democrats on more key issues than it does with Republicans, it's Republicans who have won more elections, in good measure because the GOP has raised its ad hominem attacks on Democrats' character and patriotism to a science.
Which is why, however perverse this may sound, the absence of an antiwar movement is proving to be a huge political problem for the Bush administration, and why the Republicans are reduced to trying to turn Dick Durbin, who criticized our policies at Guantanamo Bay, into some enemy of the people. The administration has no one to demonize. With nobody blocking the troop trains, military recruitment is collapsing of its own accord. With nobody in the streets, the occupation is being judged on its own merits.
Unable to distract people from his own performance, Bush is tanking in the polls. And with congressional Democrats at least partly muting their opposition to an open-ended occupation, it's Bush's fellow Republicans -- most prominently, North Carolina's Walter Jones -- who are now calling our policy into question.
The lesson here for liberals and Democrats is not that they should shun oppositional politics -- after all, they confronted Bush head-on over Social Security and prevailed. My hunch is that candidates in the 2006 elections -- not to mention, 2008 -- who call for putting a date on U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will be rewarded at the ballot box. But it will probably help such candidates, and certainly confound the Bushites, if antiwar activists forget about the streets and focus on the polls.
I don't know if I agree with all of that (for instance, when the right seemingly has no one to attack they will always, always create an enemy by any means necessary) but it's something to think about.