Stupid It's Not the Economy -- It's Iraq

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report with Brit Hume", May 14, 2004 that has been edited for clarity.

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JIM ANGLE, GUEST-HOST: The prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq appears to have done more damage to the support for the war, and the president's standing in opinion polls than any other development in Iraq, even though Mr. Bush condemned the abuse and pledged to bring those responsible to justice. In any case, for the first time his disapproval ratings are exceeding his approval ratings.

A troubling sign to his supporters, including Bill Kristol, editor of the "Weekly Standard," and Fox News contributor.

Before we get to the approval ratings, Bill, let me ask you about another poll number that was out this week. One of the things that the administration officials have watched most closely and have been most concerned about is this, support for the war. Here, asked in the Gallup poll, whether or not the war was worth it, 44 percent say it was. Fifty- four percent say it was not.

Now that is something, as I said, administration officials have always watched closely. Because even when the president's approval was moving around, there was a pretty sizable proportion of the population that thought the war was worth it. How troubling is this at this point?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "WEEKLY STANDARD": It's troubling. In another poll just off the presses from "Time" has only 39 percent of the public approving of President Bush's handling of the war of Iraq, 52 percent disapprove.

The two are connected; the war is not worth it if we're not going to win it. And people are doubtful that we're going to win it. And there are reasons on the ground where -- for them being doubtful. Obviously, we've had troubles over the last couple of months in particular.

And I think there are also reasons in terms of the administration's message, or lack of message, as to that people now have doubts. Where before they were pretty confidant that the president was resolute, and that the president and America would prevail...

ANGLE: You know, one of the interesting things about this to me is that as you look at all of the things that have happened in Iraq, a lot of developments on the positive side, a lot on the negative side. None seems to have affected the president's approval rating as much as the abuse by a small number of people. And regardless of who knew right above them, clearly the president had nothing to do that. Yet it seems to have had more affect than many other things that the president had a direct hand in.

KRISTOL: Well, it may have been the final in a series of events, I think. Particularly the withdrawal from Fallujah; four Americans brutally murdered. You know, their bodies desecrated. We say we're going to go in and kill them. We back off.

Saddam's general shows up and he's there for two days, then we pull him out. Some other general is there for two days. He now says no problem in Fallujah. No terrorists there.

I think when that happened, the irresolution with regard to Sadr in the south, and then the prison abuse, a scandal that looked as if do we know what we're doing? Are we really -- can we control the situation? I do not think the prison abuse issue by itself is actually going to hurt President Bush at all. He has no responsibility. He has handled it fine.

If anything, my advice to him would be stop apologizing for it. People want you to win the war. They don't want you to obsess about the fact that one handful of American soldiers abused, and they shouldn't have, but abused some Iraqi prisoners.

ANGLE: Now, let's look at his approval ratings. We have got a couple of polls here; one from Gallup that shows approval -- job approval of 46 percent, disapproval of 51 percent. Another of the second poll from Pew Research this week here Wednesday, saying essentially the same thing: 44 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove.

Obviously there are a lot of Democrats who disapprove of the president. They want to replace hem. To what extent are Republicans now wondering -- the president's base of support, to what extent is our -- are some of those people beginning to have doubts?

KRISTOL: Well, it's hard to win re-elections if more people disapproving of your job approval than approve of it. Some swing voters, some weak Republican voters, lots of Independents, are now moving toward the disapproval category. It's been happening for a while and it's all about Iraq.

Is the economy better or worse than it was six or 12 months ago? Better. Do people think the country is going in the right direction on the economy, more or less than six or 12 months ago? More.

All those people who keep saying it's the economy, stupid, are wrong. It's all about Iraq. And within Iraq it's not about some -- on instance of prisoner abuse or one bad story or about something else.

It's about people doubting that we have the right strategy and the ability to win the war. If President Bush can convince people that he has a winning strategy in Iraq, he will win re-election. If people think it's a mess, you have got to figure out how to get out of there; John Kerry will win the election. I honestly think it's that simple.

ANGLE: Now, you say the president should take a number of steps, including, as you put it, apply ourselves anew to winning the war. What could the president do that he's not already doing?

KRISTOL: Well, there are obviously lots of things. He could increase troop levels. He could order that Fallujah be taken instead of worrying about the Iraqi street, and what would be the affects of killing some civilians there. He could stop actually talking about the prisoner abuse; I think would help here at home.

And I, in fact, think he should just say you know it's a legal process. I'm not talking about it anymore. My cabinet is not talking about it anymore. That should be handled properly, but we're not going to tie ourselves into knots on this issue. I think he could move the elections earlier to give people a stake -- Iraqis a sense that we're really moving towards democracy in Iraq.

ANGLE: The Iraqi elections that are now planned now for January of 2005?

KRISTOL: Right. Because now we're in the ridiculous position of having Powell and Bremer say today, that gee, if this appointed Iraqi government -- appointed by some combination of the U.N. and Bremer, I guess. If they decide for some reason they want us out, we're going to leave.

That's ridiculous. We sacrificed American lives for someone whom the U.N. appoints, can tell us to get out of there? Now, if a democratically elected government comes to that decision, that's another thing. So I think we should be more pro-democracy, and also we have to use more force and crush the insurgents.

ANGLE: Now, you also suggest that the president should cancel his political travel for a few weeks and undertake a full review of Iraq policy. Now, we learned this week he did order a sort of top-down review of Iraq policy. Isn't he already doing that, except he hasn't canceled his political travel? Thirty seconds.

KRISTOL: He may be. Well, I wonder about this. I mean his political travel, the political guys; the White House says it's very, very important. Would he be better off in the White House six hours a day really showing the American public, I'm commander in chief.

I am reviewing this from top to bottom; I'll increase troop levels if I have to. We'll change -- I'm going to really be a hands-on commander in chief. Or is it better for him to be a sort of campaigner in chief and then handling -- obviously he's working hard on the war anyway.

But I think he would be better off being more obviously the commander in chief at this moment of crisis, I'm afraid, with respect to our Iraq policy.

ANGLE: OK. Bill Kristol, thank you very much.

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