For George W. Bush, had he lost in 2004 the tipping point would have been said to have been his choice to invade Iraq in 2003. After 9/11, he attained a sky high 91% approval rating, was excellent as our “consoler-in-chief” and had struck the right tone about fighting Islamic extremism while not denouncing Islam the religion (one could argue how much the policies reflected that, but in terms of rhetoric, the nuance was notable). The invasion of Iraq, when most knew Iraq had no involvement in 9/11, was then a bit of a boondoggle from the start. The rationale behind it was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and that Saddam Hussein had contacts with Al Qaeda, both of which were untrue. So when the invasion turned into the long slog of an ill-prepared, poorly run occupation, his numbers plummeted.
Throughout the 2004 campaign, questions began arising about Bush’s competence in managing a war. Democrats had chosen as their standard bearer Vietnam War veteran, critic and activist, Senator John Kerry. As the summer months came, and IEDs in Iraq became more frequent, more soldiers were coming home dead or injured, and soldiers wanting to leave after their tours were ended were “stop/lost”, people began to sour on the war.
But by election day, Bush still eked out a victory. How come?
Well, a few things. Despite declining opinions, there was still a sentiment of nationalism following 9/11 evident in the country. Likewise, there also was a degree of disagreement against the administration feeling unpatriotic of sorts out there among swing voters. Kerry had voted for the war, so he was an inadequate person to argue against it after the fact. Lastly, despite the volume of some antiwar activists, the antiwar movement at the grassroots was pretty diffuse; the messaging was different depending on where in the country you were and who was delivering it.
Which brings us to August, 2005.
The summer months in Iraq always tended to be the most violent, with it usually peaking in August. In addition, Washington D.C. shuts down as Senators and Representatives go back to their districts to meet with constituents, enjoy the summer parade schedules and relax with their families. Presidents almost always use this as a vacation from the D.C. grind as well. For Bush, that meant heading down to Crawford, Texas and hanging out at his ranch.
However, something else happened in August. The mother of a slain soldier in Iraq, Cindy Sheehan, set up a camp down the road from Bush in Crawford, asking to meet with the President. Bush selected not to meet with her (legitimately, there are reasons why this is politically sound strategy; you do not want to elevate a critic, or make it easier for others to do the same). Something then happened that President Bush did not expect; the camp (“Camp Casey,” named after her son), became a rallying point for the antiwar movement. Where before there were all sorts of diffuse points among antiwar activists, here was a core message that they could build a message around– more young men are getting shot in Iraq daily, and Bush won’t even meet with the mother of a brave soldier who paid the ultimate price. As August saw its usual bounce of Iraqi violence, the message reinforced itself more. Mothers of soldiers and veterans, two groups that were largely Republican, began to doubt their party and felt genuine sympathy for this woman, opening the door for a swing in public opinion. People were beginning not only to question the reasons we went to war, but Bush’s very management of it, and whether he cared about those fighting it at all.
Each day saw the camp swell in numbers, and yet Bush continued to avoid it. Had he just met with her once, the story might have died, but the longer this went on, the bigger the story got. With DC on recess, the biggest stories for a month on the nightly news were more soldiers killed in Iraq, and the growing crowds at Camp Casey, with nothing else occurring to diminish the attention or change the news cycle.
So when Hurricane Katrina hit, Bush was ripe for a drubbing.
Katrina started as a slow moving category 2 storm, but stayed out in the Gulf of Mexico absorbing that hot, humid water until it blew up into a Category 5 catastrophe (it was the fourth largest hurricane on record for the US). It stayed hovered over New Orleans dropping record amounts of rainfall, drenching residents and raising water levels. When the levees around Lake Pontchartrain burst, half of the city was flooded. People seeking refuge at the Superdome were subject to horrible conditions. When the storm passed, people spent days awaiting help; the images of people sitting on rooftops waiting for someone to save them as bodies in the water floated by were visually damning. When it was all over, as many people died during Katrina as had died on 9/11.
Bush’s first attempt to assess the damage was not well received, for good reason. Air Force One flew over the damage on its way to D.C. and a photo of Bush looking out the window at a submerged city demonstrated a glaring disconnect between him and what was happening on the ground. His second attempt, when he first got to Louisiana, was to offer assurance that everything that could be done, was being done. A photo op with FEMA director, Michael Brown, resulted in probably the worst line ever uttered by a president, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie.” (as people were literally drowning in the streets). Not only did that not comport with what most people thought the government needed to do, when journalists looked into Brown’s resume they found that he was a white shirt bureaucrat with no emergency response experience at all (his only organizational experience was as the head of the International Arabian Horse Association). Bush’s approval numbers dropped like a rock as he appeared more out of his depth, administratively incompetent, and apathetic to the needs of people at the grassroots (it cannot be overstated that there was a large racial component to this as well, since most of the affected areas in New Orleans were largely African-american neighborhoods).
The damage was done to Bush’s presidency and in the midterms the following year, he and the GOP got a “thumpin” as he put it. By 2008, with the collapse of the housing market and bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, he had had one of the worst terms of a president ever.
So how does this relate to today’s political climate? Well, as loud and as vocal as some groups may be, to change minds takes time; it may not happen all at once, but the prolonged barrage of negative stories can add up and eventually have an impact. Likewise, a sympathetic figure to rally around can help focus a political message. Lastly, sometimes the larger story simply reinforces beliefs that were always out there but not getting the volume or attention it deserved. Planting the seeds of doubt may be enough for the time being, for only a bigger story to reinforce that doubt clobbering home the issue later on. Once it starts to impact groups personally impacted, and those voters sour on their normal allegiances, minds open up and momentum becomes insurmountable.
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