Rally ‘Round the Flag

The invasion of Iraq has validated a basic rule of American politics: Americans rally round the president in times of national crisis. Polls now show that seven in 10 Americans support the decision to go to war. That public support is likely to last, provided U.S. forces avoid disaster in the march to Baghdad.

Signs of a rally round the flag were evident even before the first bombs fell last Wednesday night. Between last August and the beginning of March, Gallup found that support for the war generally fluctuated between 52 and 59 percent. Then in mid-March, as diplomacy began breaking down, public support crept higher. The last Gallup poll before the war started showed 64 percent in favor.

The increase in support for the war also carried over to support for President Bush. His overall public approval rating jumped between five and 13 percentage points, depending on the poll, in the first days of fighting.

The rally round the flag, however, extended beyond the White House. As also happened with the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan wars, the public responded to the invasion of Iraq by giving higher marks to Congress and expressing greater optimism about the country’s future. A New York Times/CBS poll found that Congress’s approval rating jumped 7 percentage points and now sits at 52 percent. Gallup found that the percentage of the public expressing satisfaction with the way things are going in the country jumped from 36 to 60 percent. Rather than being simply about the president, the rally is better understood as a surge of patriotic support for the government and country as a whole.

Although the early polls give the White House reason for encouragement, they also contain warning signs. Even the highest recorded increase in Bush’s approval rating—13 percentage points—falls far short of the 35-percentage point increase he registered after September 11. It is also only half the increase his father recorded in the first days of the Persian Gulf War.

The modest nature of Bush’s current rally results from a deep partisan split over the wisdom of the war. While more than nine out of 10 Republicans support it, only half of Democrats do. This stands in stark contrast to the Persian Gulf war, where overwhelming majorities of members of both parties closed ranks behind the president despite being deeply split on the eve of war. The lower levels of Democratic support reflect disagreement over the wisdom of the war, persistent doubts about the sincerity of the administration’s diplomatic efforts at the United Nations, and bitterness over how Bush and other Republicans have questioned Democrats’ patriotism.

A second warning sign for Bush is that some of the war support is soft. Polls show that 20 to 30 percent of war supporters have reservations about the war.

Nonetheless, support is unlikely to sour quickly. None of the nightmare scenarios about torched oilfields and demolished dams that preoccupied TV talking heads on the eve of war have come true. The casualties U.S. forces have suffered since Sunday have taken the gee-whiz edge off of news coverage, but most news stories remain positive. Even if critical stories begin airing, this by itself will not produce a sudden drop in public support. Most Americans will give the president considerable benefit of the doubt as long as U.S. forces appear to be making progress toward victory.

A major terrorist attack on Americans, whether at home or abroad, would likely reinforce support for the war. Such an attack would affirm the president’s argument that Hussein has aided and abetted terrorist organizations. Iraq’s use of weapons of mass destruction would have the same effect, as would blatant violations of the Geneva conventions and use of Iraqi civilians as human shields.

The one event that could rob Bush of support is a protracted fight for Baghdad. Polls show that Americans are leery of two things—suffering a high number of American casualties and killing large numbers of Iraqi civilians. The former is especially important. Most Americans expect a short and relatively bloodless war. Only a quarter expect it to last as long as four months, and only about one in 10 thinks the U.S. death toll will top 1,000. A bitter battle for Baghdad could prove those pessimistic expectations right.

If the war goes badly, the partisan split in public opinion suggests the consequences at home could be ugly. Many Democrats are eager to argue that President Bush has committed a foreign policy blunder of historic proportions. The result could be a political donnybrook not seen in Washington since the later years of the Vietnam War.

It is more likely that the war will go reasonably well. That would enable Bush to extend his dominance of foreign policy. History suggests, however, that he will fail to translate battlefield success into greater influence over domestic policy. His father couldn’t do it after the Persian Gulf War, and he couldn’t do it after the Afghanistan war.

That leads to another basic law of American political life. When wars end, politics quickly reverts to normal.