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Polls, Editorials Reflect Public’s Differing Views on Iraq

September 19, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: And we begin with a national snapshot from polls responding to last week’s testimony by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and President Bush’s speech. Joining me for that is Andrew Kohut, president of The Pew Research Center.

Andy, all that high-level attention last week for the testimony and the speeches, we just saw Congress beginning to respond, how did the public respond? Was it moved?

ANDREW KOHUT, President, Pew Research Center: Well, it was moved in some respects, but there was no bottom line, change in bottom-line attitude toward Iraq. Certainly, Petraeus made a very good impression: 57 percent of the people that we interviewed said they approved of his recommendation; 55 percent said that he did an accurate job of giving them an assessment of what was going on, on the ground there.

But 68 percent of them told us, “He didn’t change my opinion about Iraq.” And if you look at the trend lines on the questions about, how well is the war going? Are we ultimately going to be successful? The July survey that we conducted, the September survey that we conducted looks exactly like the July survey: 54 percent said bring troops home as soon as possible then, and now close to 40 percent say stay the course until the country is stable, and a plurality of people continue to say that the United States will probably not succeed.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about in terms of the military effort on the ground?

ANDREW KOHUT: There we did see some progress, some sense of progress. The percentage of people saying the war is going well went from 36 percent to 41 percent. Now, 41 percent is still a minority view, but it’s a bigger minority view. Opinion about whether the surge is working surged a little bit and went from 24 percent to 31 percent.

JEFFREY BROWN: And most of that from Republicans, could you tell?

ANDREW KOHUT: Most of it from Republicans; that’s one of the characteristics of this war. Opinion about this war is very different between Republicans and Democrats. And Republicans, their spine was stiffened a bit by what Petraeus had to say.

For example, in July, 61 percent of Republicans said that we were making progress in defeating the insurgents; that went up to 67 percent in September. But for the Democrats, it stayed at 16 percent. Most Democrats overwhelmingly say we’re losing ground, we’re not making progress.

So the consequence of this is that we now have an even wider partisan gap between Republicans and Democrats on how they think the war is going and what they think we should do.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you’re seeing it as an even wider and also a hardened, more hardened partisan gap?

ANDREW KOHUT: Yes, I mean, I think, with respect to the Democrats, that’s the case, because what we saw also is the percentage of Democrats saying that their leaders are not doing enough to push Bush on Iraq. In July, that percentage was 54 percent, and in September, it was 61 percent.

JEFFREY BROWN: I wanted to ask you about that. I want to be clear. SO this is Democrats looking at the Democratic leadership in Congress?

ANDREW KOHUT: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Saying they haven’t done enough?

ANDREW KOHUT: So the Democrats are more frustrated. The Republicans felt a little bit better, given what Petraeus had to say and what President Bush and Crocker had to say. But all of that, what that amounts to is that both sides are further apart than they were in July. That’s the consequence, the political consequence of all of this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does the lack of movement in public sentiment suggest to you a disconnect between — because last week in Washington, this was, you know, a big deal that they were coming to talk. This was supposed to have an impact. You’re suggesting it didn’t. Does that reflect some disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, certainly, the country wasn’t as tuned into this. The percentage of people attentive to this were relatively modest. President Bush got much more attention when he announced the surge back in January than when he went on television last Thursday evening.

And, certainly, the views of Democrats, the Democratic base, is really quite strident, perhaps even more strident than some of its leaders. And similarly, the Republicans that we interview are pretty committed to their point of view. So I don’t know whether there’s a mismatch, but the polarization we see in Washington reflects the polarization that we see amongst the public itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, because, of course, we are in a presidential campaign, you’re suggesting that the opinion tableau, I think you call it, is pretty well set now looking towards 2008?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think this is what we’ve got. I mean, the Democrats were for a long time — their opinions were galvanized in opposition to the war, occurred when they thought the timeline could be tied to a spending bill. That’s disappeared.

So they’re frustrated. They want a leader who’s going to go to achieve what the congressional leaders haven’t achieved. The Republicans, on the other hand, want to stay the course, and, you know, they’re 180 degrees apart.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Andy Kohut. Thanks a lot.

ANDREW KOHUT: You’re welcome.

Analysis from regional editors

Bruce Dold
Chicago Tribune
[W]hat I'm hearing from readers is that their opinions as far as how the war is going have not changed. If anything, they've probably hardened.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now we sample some of the opinion through the views of four editorial page editors: John Diaz of the San Francisco Chronicle; Bruce Dold at the Chicago Tribune; J.R. Labbe of the Fort Worth Star Telegram; and Frances Coleman of the Mobile Register in Alabama.

Well, John Diaz, I'll start with you. Andy Kohut just told us that the views didn't budge much after last week and, if anything, hardened. Does that sound right to you?

JOHN DIAZ, San Francisco Chronicle: Yes, it certainly does, Jeff. I think the Bush White House was clearly hoping that General Petraeus' testimony last week would be some kind of turning point or tipping point for support for the war. That clearly did not happen.

I guess there are a couple of things that I found very notable in that Pew poll. One is the fact that, even though there was some shift in terms of people believing General Petraeus, still 54 percent of Americans want us to get out of Iraq as soon as possible. And let me tell you, I think if you drill down at that poll and if you look at public sentiment, they are not trusting President Bush to define "as soon as possible." They mean soon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bruce Dold, what was your response to last week, the debate then, and watching Congress at it today?

BRUCE DOLD, Chicago Tribune: I think what I'm hearing from readers is that their opinions as far as how the war is going have not changed. If anything, they've probably hardened.

The one thing I think I took from both from readers and from the polling that I think is significant for how this goes forward is that I think there's a clear majority of people who don't want Congress to dictate how the military responds to this.

General Petraeus' policy, his plan, has a two-to-one approval rating. That's a lot better than Congress's approval rating, which is hovering around 25 percent to 30 percent. So I think out of this the Bush administration bought some more time. I don't expect that Congress is going to start telling the military how to act, and I don't think that most people want that to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, J.R. Labbe, you're in a state that certainly has supported the president, but some time back, your paper took a more critical stance. What was your reaction to General Petraeus last week and the president?

J.R. LABBE, Fort Worth Star Telegram: Yes, our paper has taken a stand that we would hope to see the president and Congress work together to start pulling troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible. That was not a popular position to take in a county, in an area of Texas that is redder than the red state. We're second only to Orange County in our conservatism in this area.

I think, as far as our community is concerned -- and it's heavily defense- and military-based -- they heard what they wanted to from General Petraeus, and they are still hearing what they want to hear from the administration. Their support is for General Petraeus, General Casey, the chief of staff of the Army.

They certainly believe that, if Casey could wave a wand tomorrow and change the 15-month deployments to 12 months, he would do it. But they stand firm in the fact that that should be a decision made by the guys that have the shiny brass on their collars and not by the individuals standing on the floor of Congress.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that's what they heard. What did you hear at the paper? Did it change your mind at all?

J.R. LABBE: I don't know that it has changed the mind of the editorial board in the way that the war and the strategy for the war. From the beginning, we have said we did not believe the administration had made the case for going into Iraq.

At the time of 2003, we believed that Hussein was in a box at that time and that our work was left undone in Afghanistan. We worried that the shift of focus and resources to Iraq was going to be a mistake. I don't want to sound like we were some kind of Cassandras predicting the truth, but that's, indeed, what has happened. We're not very popular with a lot of our readers.

Passing Iraq to the next president

John Diaz
San Francisco Chronicle
[T]here's a very skeptical and, of course, a very polarized public. And I think that's one of the regrettable things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Frances Coleman, your paper has supported the effort through the last several years. President Bush last week made it pretty clear that this would all continue on into the next presidency. I wonder, were you surprised? Does that change at all the way you think about what's going on in Iraq?

FRANCES COLEMAN, Mobile Press-Register: Well, I don't think that I was surprised, and I don't think our editorial board was surprised, and I don't think our readers were surprised, although we may have been a little dismayed to hear the facts laid out quite so bluntly. We will be there for a while. If we decided tomorrow as a nation to leave Iraq, for Heaven's sake, it would take, what, two years to get ourselves out of there, according to the military brass?

Our readers here, this is also a red state. It's also a very military-oriented state, because we have Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, and we have Keesler in Biloxi, and Eglin over east of Pensacola. So this area has a lot of respect, our readers do, for the military, so Petraeus was well-received in what he had to say.

Like everywhere else in the country, we have a lot of debate among the citizenry about whether the war is being carried out well or not, but Petraeus himself, I think, earned the respect of our readers.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the other side of that, just staying with you, the political progress on the ground, if any, in Iraq? Does that have you worried?

FRANCES COLEMAN: You know, I'm not a general. I'm not a soldier. I want to believe General Petraeus and the military assessment that we're making some progress. I want to believe that, and I hope that we are. Other respected people seem to believe it, as well.

The question has to be, on both sides of the political aisle, how do we get out? I mean, at the end of the day, we've got to get out of there, whether it's in a year or five years. And we've got to leave some semblance of order in that society over there for the people, the Iraqis themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Diaz, how do you think in terms of the public's commitment over the longer term now, that the president has made that pretty clear, and also what I was talking about with Andy, about the potential of a disconnect between what goes on in Washington, the debate here, and attitudes out in the country where you are?

JOHN DIAZ: Well, I would look at those numbers a little different in terms of the disconnect between Washington and out in the country. I think what really happened here is that this is not a new issue when General Petraeus came to Capitol Hill.

Americans have been following this closely over the last couple of years or last four-and-a-half years. They've heard a lot of projections that didn't turn out to be true. They've heard a lot of promises that didn't happen. So I think there's a very skeptical and, of course, a very polarized public. And I think that's one of the regrettable things.

My guess is that, if you look at General Petraeus' good news, you have to look at it in the context that the 45 percent reduction in violence in Iraq is against some very high numbers. By anyone's definition, it is still a mess, and there's no real coherent strategy from this administration to get us out of this mess.

So I think the status quo, which is what the president basically was asking for, is unacceptable to most Americans.

Long-term involvement in Iraq

J.R. Labbe
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
[Y]ou can paint a pumpkin black, but that doesn't make it a bowling ball. You can say we're going to end this war as much as you want, but whether there's a U.S. troop there tomorrow or they're all gone, there's still going to be a war in Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Bruce Dold, staying on this issue of the long-term involvement here that's on the table, do you see the public as continuing to be engaged, more engaged, or over time becoming less engaged?

BRUCE DOLD: I think the public will probably be satisfied if they see a gradual withdrawal of troops. But I think they're also going to eventually come around to remembering and recognizing that we've had troops, tens of thousands of troops, in Germany and Japan for 60-some years. We have 28,000 troops in Korea now. We've been there for more than 50 years.

So I don't think it's extraordinary to think that we will bring this down and that there will be a peacekeeping force of U.S. troops, and hopefully international troops, in Iraq maybe for decades. But that's not without -- that is precedented. There is precedent for that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And staying with you, whom do you see the public looking at -- I mean, because now we've had the president, of course, we have Congress debating, we have the general, and the ambassador last week. Is the public looking at anyone in particular now in terms of responsibility?

BRUCE DOLD: Well, I think we went through a watershed week last week, and I don't see from the actions in Congress today that you're going to see any dramatic change there. So I think now it's all going to hinge on whether they keep seeing some progress in Iraq, and that includes political progress, and I think Ambassador Crocker had a much more difficult time. He had a much tougher sell, because we're just not seeing Iraqi political process, and that is the most frustrating thing in all of this.

JEFFREY BROWN: J.R. Labbe, who do you see the public looking at mostly now, looking to?

J.R. LABBE: Well, there's a tremendous amount of frustration on everybody's part, whether you are supporters of the administration or you are on the other side, wanting the troops to come home tomorrow. There are no easy answers left here, and I think Americans are smart and they know that.

The military has made incremental improvement in some areas, but it's like a giant game of whack-a-mole in that country. When you make some success somewhere, it pops up some place else.

The military is also very aware they are not the only answer. There's got to be political, economic, educational, and social support there that comes from the state side, the NGOs. There's not money going to those organizations. The military's getting all the greenbacks right now, and they're having to look to help dole out funds for if the, you know, State Department's doing agricultural work in north Mobile or somewhere else.

So it is a multiple responsibility for what's happening there. I think the public is as frustrated as Congress is. Certainly, the Bush administration would have loved to have seen more progress than they have over there.

But, you know, the Democrats keep saying, "We're going to end this war and bring them home." Well, you know, you can paint a pumpkin black, but that doesn't make it a bowling ball. You can say we're going to end this war as much as you want, but whether there's a U.S. troop there tomorrow or they're all gone, there's still going to be a war in Iraq. And that's -- we're not going to end this war. So there's some disingenuous on the part of the Democrats, as well, that they're going to be able to stop what's going on there.

Washington-public disconnect

Frances Coleman
Mobile Press-Register
[T]he public is not dumb. They understand that Iraq and the Middle East are in our future for, if not centuries, at least decades to come. That's a critical region. They understand we have a role to play there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Frances Coleman, how do you respond to the disconnect question between the debate last week in Washington and what you're hearing back at home?

FRANCES COLEMAN: I think that, you know, here at home, our folks are looking to the military. I think they have lost some faith in the president. They're a little wary of what Congress can and actually will do. I think they're expecting the administration to put diplomatic pressure on the Iraqi leadership to bring some stability, some order, and some political solutions to that situation.

And as J.R. said earlier, you know, the public is not dumb. They understand that Iraq and the Middle East are in our future for, if not centuries, at least decades to come. That's a critical region. They understand we have a role to play there. They understand that Iraq's new best friend will be Iran if we turn around and leave.

So as I say, they're not dumb. They understand what's at stake, and I think they have a feeling that we've got to address this now.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Francis Coleman, J.R. Labbe, Bruce Dold, and John Diaz, thank you all very much.