Friday, June 08, 2007

Who lost the Iraq war funding/veto fight?

The debate over the Iraq War funding bill-- the original one with withdrawal dates-- and the presidential veto of the bill posed a key political question: who wins when Congress confronts President, and in this particular case did President Bush or the Congress win the battle for public opinion?

Democrats in Congress were particularly wary about the charge of "undermining the troops", a charge the White House used repeatedly and one to which past Congresses have fallen victim. But the White House had to defend continuing a policy that most of the public sees as a failure. The Democrats bet that full funding but with a deadline would deflect the charge of undermining troops while moving towards their supporters goal of ending the war. The president bet that a public unhappy with the war would nevertheless reject a "surrender date" and could be persuaded that the surge of troops and Gen. Petraeus' "new strategy" should be given time to work.

The key period was Friday, April 20 through Tuesday, May 1. On April 20, President Bush gave a full defense of his new policy in a speech at East Grand Rapids MI, outlining what was new, what the hopes were and where some success could be seen, while admitting a long road ahead including increased casualties. On Monday, April 23, the President met with General Petraeus, and the same day House and Senate negotiators approved a common bill. The next day, April 24, President Bush gave a final warning to Congress in a South Lawn appearance that again outlined the arguments against a deadline and promised a veto. The House passed the bill on April 25th and the Senate on April 25th. The following Tuesday, May 1, President Bush delivered his promised veto.

So what happened to public opinion? The period from December through mid-April showed surprising stability in approval of President Bush. Despite the change in control of Congress, the new "surge" initiative in Iraq and the subsequent debates about the war, approval of the President remained quite stable, with only momentary wiggles that quickly returned to a stable support of around 34%.

That changed on April 24th. The trend estimate of presidential approval marks a sudden and sharp change on that date. Approval on the 24th was a shade over 34%, as it had been since December. But after that, approval started to decline steadily to the current estimate of 31.9%. That 2.1 point decline may sound small, but it is a significant shift in the trend estimate. Individual polls vary widely around this trend, far more than 2 points, but the mean moves much less, and as the graph above makes clear, hardly moved at all in the December-March period. The sharpness of the change point, and the stability of the subsequent decline, argues that this was a "real" point of change and not just random noise. I'm using the conservative "old blue" estimator here, which is hard to fool about changes in trend. It has taken a while to make up its mind (and mine) that this is a real shift in support, but it and I are now convinced.

That the change occurs in the midst of the war deadline/veto debate could be accidental. But it certainly is a believable moment for opinions to shift. A fundamental problem of inference with change point estimates such as this is that anything that happened around April 24th could also possibly be the cause of this shift in approval. Attorney General Gonzalez testified the previous week, for example, and the President supported him during this week as well. And John McCain announced his presidential campaign. And other stuff happened. All can claim the same coincidental relationship with approval's sudden downward turn. But I'd argue that the debate over the war that week tapped into the most salient divide in American politics this spring and is the more plausible explanation.

And I KNOW someone will say it was gas prices. It wasn't. Gas prices started rising the week of January 22, from $2.107/gal and rose each week but one until May 21 when the price hit $3.211/gal. As of June 4 the price was $3.132. So if it was the price of gas, rather than a trivial little war or a boring Washington political fight that drives approval, the President should have started sinking rapidly around the end of January. Excuse the rant, but the "gas prices" matter more than the war or anything else argument is just wrong. At most gas prices enter into approval along with other economic performance variables, but they do not deserve the primacy some attribute to them.

And so the President pressed his case for continuing the new war strategy and retaining both full funding and an open ended commitment in Iraq. He ultimately won that legislative fight, at least until new funding is required in September. But his approval rating has again started to sink, sapping further his already seriously depleted stock of public support.

And so the story might end here. Bush cast his veto and prevailed on funding, but has lost the public battle, at least temporarily. But what about approval of Congress? Did their approval ratings change about this same time? If so, how?

Estimating approval change requires data. Since April 24, there have been 19 polls of presidential approval, providing my trend estimator with enough evidence to reach a reasonably strong conclusion. For Congressional approval, there have been only 10 polls since April 24, so any conclusion rests on half the evidence. Normally I say that the "old blue" estimator likes to have about 12 polls to detect a durable change of trend, rather than just a random bump. But 10 is "around 12" enough that I'll take the risk this time in order to compare Congressional approval. So there is no cheating, I mark the same change date in the Congressional chart, April 24th, so we can see if the shifts match.

Congress experienced a downturn in approval at almost the same time as did Bush. The high point for Congress is actually April 15. Since then the Congressional approval rating has fallen from 34.5% to 33.0%.

So how do we read this result? Neither Congress nor President won new or increased support from the public following the April debate over the war. As a single actor, it is easier to understand the President's situation. But with Congress, interpretation is confounded. Did the deadline cause supporters of the war to turn more negative to Congress, while opponents of the war either didn't increase support or were unhappy with a measure they thought too weak? Or were Republican voters happy with Congressional Republican support of the President, while Democrats were happy with Democratic opposition while independents turned a bit down?

It is surely the case that whatever Congress does it is easy to find something not to like. Partisans can be upset with the behavior of the other party in Congress, or even with members from their own party who fail to satisfy them. And arguably Congress suffers from simple controversy which gives the impression of a chaotic institution. All this means that a direct interpretation of WHY congressional approval has slipped is much more ambiguous than it is for the President. But we can say that the net effect, however it was divided by partisanship or anything else, was a decline in approval of Congress, reversing a small upward slope prior to the period around April 24.

However, consider the counter-factual. If approval of Congress had risen following April 24th, we'd have pretty strong evidence that Congress had benefited from the war funding debate. That did not happen. So at the least we have evidence that Bush certainly suffered and that most likely so did Congress. Why Congress suffered, and among which groups of the population, we can't say.

It would be nice to see if the parties in Congress gained or suffered differently. Alas, there are only 2 polls on Democratic performance, and only one for Republicans. The data are below, but no conclusion is possible based on this thin gruel.

So who lost the Iraq funding/veto fight? Both President and Congress. The President continues to support a war that a majority of the public is unhappy with, even if they are somewhat divided on the solution. The Democrats in Congress benefit from professed public support for reduced forces and a pullout deadline, but have failed to produce legislation that garners them increases in public support. And Republicans in Congress have started to talk about September as the turning point beyond which their support for an unpopular war must find a new direction that will not imperil their electoral chances in the 2008 congressional elections.

So far neither side has found a route to increased public support.