Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Good legal case, bad political case

He said he believes the American people support President Bush’s terror-fighting strategy. “If there’s a backlash pending,” because of reports of National Security Agency surveillance of calls originating within the United States, he said, “I think the backlash is going to be against those who are suggesting somehow that we shouldn’t take these steps to defend the country.”

Cheney talked about terrorism and national security amid a burgeoning controversy at home over President Bush’s acknowledgment of a four-year-old administration program to eavesdrop — without court-approved warrants — on international calls and e-mails of Americans and others inside the United States with suspected ties to the terrorist network al-Qaida.

President Bush's approval rating has surged in recent weeks, reversing what had been an extended period of decline, with Americans now expressing renewed optimism about the future of democracy in Iraq, the campaign against terrorism and the U.S. economy, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll.

Bush's overall approval rating rose to 47 percent, from 39 percent in early November, with 52 percent saying they disapprove of how he is handling his job. His approval rating on Iraq jumped 10 percentage points since early November, to 46 percent, while his rating on the economy rose 11 points, to 47 percent. A clear majority, 56 percent, said they approve of the way Bush is handling the fight against terrorism -- a traditional strong point in his reputation that nonetheless had flagged to 48 percent in the November poll.

My initial reaction has not changed and, in fact, I became even more skeptical of Bush's eavesdropping arguments than ever once I learned that the court approval could be sought retroactively if he were willing to follow the letter of the law. This is a debate worth having and an investigation and congressional hearings are warranted.

Still, most people seem to think (1) I'm not a bad guy so the government isn't listening to my conversations, and/or (2) I'm not doing anything wrong so I wouldn't care if the government did listen to my conversations. Add that general indifference to the Cheney drumbeat (“it’s not an accident that we haven’t been hit in four years”), and the good legal arguments against Bush are likely to be overwhelmed politically by the fact that a core segment of the American public does not take for granted that we haven't had a building, a bridge or an airplane blown up recently.

The Democrats should win the battle over the legal issue on the merits, but Bush seems unlikely to be punished politically as a result.

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