Little Collateral Damage for Bush on WMDs

Posted June 17, 2003 at 1:09pm

In late May, 36 percent of those polled told Princeton Survey Research Associates and Newsweek interviewers that the Bush administration “purposely” misled the public about evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to build support for the recent war. [IMGCAP(1)]

In the June 9-10 Gallup, CNN and USA Today poll, 31 percent said the administration “deliberately” misled the American public about whether Iraq had WMDs. Of the 44 percent in the June 12-13 CBS News poll who said the administration overestimated the number of WMDs in Iraq, 69 percent said the administration exaggerated the numbers to build more support for the war.

Despite those poll results, there are at least three reasons why this issue is unlikely to damage the administration.

First, Americans felt strongly after the 1991 Persian Gulf War that the nation hadn’t finished the job and that it should have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein. In April 1991, 55 percent told Gallup and Newsweek interviewers that the war was not a victory because Hussein remained in power (36 percent said it was). In 1996, 92 percent told PSRA and Newsweek interviewers that Hussein was a genuine villain. Five years later, in a 1996 CBS News poll, 71 percent said the United States should have removed him from power while 21 percent said it should have stopped fighting when Iraqi troops left Kuwait.

In February 2001, a decade after the war, a still-robust 64 percent told CBS News interviewers that the United States should have removed Hussein. Sixty-two percent in the new CBS News poll said removing the Iraqi dictator from power was worth the loss of American life and other costs.

Second, in part because of their well-formed views about Hussein, Americans believed (and still believe) that he had biological or chemical weapons. When CBS asked people in February 2002 whether Iraq had such weapons, 80 percent said it probably did. CBS asked the question five more times between 2002 and late-April 2003, and each time more than 75 percent thought the country probably did possess such weapons.

Third, during the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush established a reputation for honesty and integrity. Those ratings are as strong (and in some polls stronger) than they were when he was first elected.

It’s clear from all the survey questions I’ve reviewed that most Americans believe the war would be justified even if the weapons are never found.

College Students’ Politics. In the April 22-30 Schneiders/DellaVolpe/Schulman poll of college students nationwide for the Institute of Politics at Harvard, 26 percent called themselves liberal and 25 percent conservative.

When asked about social issues, 37 percent of college students called themselves liberals, 34 percent moderates and 25 percent conservative. On economic issues, most called themselves moderates (42 percent), but conservatives outnumbered liberals (31 percent to 25 percent).

When asked about their political affiliations, 29 percent said they were Democrats, 26 percent Republicans and 41 percent independent or unaffiliated. Thirty-four percent said they would probably vote for Bush in 2004, 32 percent for the Democratic candidate, 8 percent for a candidate running from one of the independent parties and 26 percent didn’t know.

What’s Morally Acceptable, What’s Not. Two-thirds of those surveyed told Gallup in early May that divorce was morally acceptable. Twenty-seven percent said it was morally wrong. The responses for the death penalty were 64 percent to 31 percent; for medical testing on animals, 63 percent to 33 percent; gambling, 63 percent to 34 percent; buying and wearing fur, 60 percent to 36 percent; sex between an unmarried man and woman, 58 percent to 41 percent; medical research using human stem cells, 54 percent to 38 percent; having a baby outside of marriage, 51 percent to 46 percent.

The tables turned on doctor-assisted suicide (45 percent morally acceptable to 49 percent morally wrong); homosexual behavior (44 percent to 52 percent); abortion (37 percent to 53 percent); cloning animals (29 percent to 68 percent); suicide (14 percent to 81 percent); cloning humans (8 percent to 90 percent); polygamy (7 percent to 92 percent); and extramarital affairs (6 percent to 93 percent).

Laura, Hillary and Martha. That last one is Stewart, not Washington, and she’s not doing well in the polls. Thirty-three percent had a favorable opinion of her and 52 percent an unfavorable one in the June 9-10 Gallup, CNN and USA Today poll. Fifty-three percent had a favorable opinion of New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (43 percent unfavorable) and 69 percent favorable for first lady Laura Bush (13 percent unfavorable).

Big Business, the Religious Right and Bush. In the early-May CBS News and New York Times poll, 57 percent said big business had too much influence on the Bush administration, 7 percent too little and 22 percent the right amount. Twenty-one percent said the religious right has too much influence on the president, 22 percent too little and 40 percent said about the right amount.