In the 1993 film "Groundhog Day," comedian Bill Murray played a television personality who found himself trapped in an endless, repetitive sequence of events. He was doomed to continuously relive the events of one day in his life as a weatherman assigned to cover the telltale behavior of a legendary Pennsylvania groundhog.
The way this week started for George W. Bush, he must have felt a lot like Murray's ill-fated character. The president seems mired in an endless repeat of half-hearted actions by Iraq, inconclusive statements by United Nations weapons inspectors, stall-ball language from members of the U.N. Security Council and a Dow Jones industrial average that ping-pongs up and down without deciding whether to finally take off or decline.
The latest polls support the premise that Bush is stuck in a "Groundhog Day Syndrome," and they provide a strong hint that if he doesn't move quickly, he might never completely escape the political fallout.
Early last fall, the president enjoyed strong job approval ratings and equally strong public support for any potential war in Iraq. But the endless diplomatic shuffles, combined with a poorly received domestic economic proposal, now have Bush stuck. He can neither muster the momentum necessary to take action abroad, nor capture the media's restless attention span long enough to promote his economic stimulus package.
Consider: Our poll of 1,000 Americans in mid-January showed that only 44 percent supported President Bush's economic proposals. At the same time, nearly 50 percent said they would vote to re-elect him against all of the announced and other anticipated challengers for 2004. Even after the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 61 percent were prepared to support Bush in a war against Iraq. But those same poll respondents gave the president his lowest job approval rating since the terrorist attacks of 2001 -- 58 percent.
Since the shuttle tragedy, Bush has had little to help improve his numbers. Perhaps the only real bright spot came in the form of an endorsement of the president's economic plan by the influential Democrat from Georgia, Sen. Zell Miller. But Miller's political heft and potentially critical vote notwithstanding, one can't help but hear the sound of air leaking with a loud hiss from Bush's efforts to liberate the Iraqi people and revive the American economy.
Now, with each new day of old words and little else, Americans are left to wonder what it will take for George W.'s own version of "Groundhog Day" to transform suddenly into another popular movie -- "Back to the Future." That film depicted time travelers emerging into the past. The president could end up playing out his own re-make. Like his father, George H.W. Bush, George Jr. could find himself running for re-election against a troublesome conservative ideologue like Pat Buchanan.
Conjecture? Exaggeration? Not really. It was Buchanan in 1992 that challenged the incumbent George Bush, forcing him to defend his conservative credentials in the South. That right-of-center tiff helped stir up enough voter discontent to trigger the meteoric rise of third party candidate Ross Perot, whose electoral success helped vault the upstart Democrat Bill Clinton past the seemingly invincible Bush. While Buchanan might not be the one the younger Bush could collide with if the president "goes back in time," it is still interesting to note that no less than Buchanan himself is loudly making known his opposition to a war in the Middle East. Importantly, Buchanan is not alone among established Washington conservatives.
It is likely that without an invasion of Iraq soon, support for the war will wither and the president's approval rating -- not to mention his ability to pass a meaningful economic package -- will suffer greatly.
The answer for Bush? Fish or cut bait. Some pollsters have argued that American support for war with Iraq is contingent on participation by other nations. But our poll of mid-February showed that support would come, allied support or not. However, if the president waits even a few weeks more for new U.N. resolutions, semi-effective inspections in Iraq and prevarications from Saddam Hussein, he will likely lose the critical mass of support needed to fight his proposed war.
For George W. Bush, as for the Bill Murray character, the time has come to escape Groundhog Day once and for all. He must invade Iraq, or declare victory and bring the troops home. Only then will our nation return its attention to the other critical issues and activities necessary for his political -- and our national -- survival.
And if in mid-March we are still talking about Iraq with words like "if" and "when," the story of Bush's 2004 re-election bid may not provide a happy Hollywood ending for the White House.
Matt Towery is chair of InsiderAdvantage, which works in conjunction with The Marketing Workshop to conduct polls for his syndicated column.
He can be reached at
www.InsiderAdvantage.com. To find out more about Matt Towery, visit the Creators
Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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