Gore's losses in Kosovo

May 31, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Early in 1980, President Jimmy Carter was facing a challenge from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination and the prospect of a general election campaign against Republican Ronald Reagan.

He was also being forced to deal with the crisis occasioned by Iran's action in taking 55 American hostages in the embassy in Tehran.

But neither Mr. Kennedy nor Mr. Reagan felt free to criticize President Carter's handling of the hostage crisis, lest they be accused of undermining a president dealing with a foreign adversary.

As the winter turned to spring, however, the support for the president gradually waned and the criticism just as gradually grew. The first week in April, the line downward charting approval of Mr. Carter's performance was crossed by the rising line of disapproval.

From that point on, the hostage crisis became a crushing political burden for Mr. Carter. And from that point on, both opponents felt free to criticize him. Indeed, in the end, Mr. Carter's frustration in trying to free the hostages crystallized doubts about his strength as a national leader and led to his defeat.

This history is worth recalling because we are reaching the point right now at which the declining line of approval for President Clinton's conduct of the war in the Balkans is crossing the rising line of disapproval.

Political price

And the question this time is whether Vice President Al Gore will pay the political price because his approval ratings are trending downward right along with those of Mr. Clinton.

The figures for Mr. Clinton are ominous. The latest Gallup Poll found support for the air campaign against the Serbs at 49 percent, the lowest level since the bombing started, compared to 47 percent disapproval, a statistical dead heat.

Approval of his handling of the situation dropped from 66 to 57 percent in the last two weeks. And, most critically, the president's overall job approval rating has dropped from a high of 73 percent to 53 percent, its lowest level since 1996.

A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll puts Mr. Clinton's job approval rating at 56 percent, the first time it has been under 60 percent in surveys made every two weeks since February of 1998.

Al Gore is not being judged, of course, on handling the war in Kosovo. But his overall job approval rating has trended steadily down from 52 percent in February to reach 41 percent in the latest Fox poll -- after a full year of ratings in the 54 to 59 percent range.

Mr. Gore's identification with Mr. Clinton is a heavy burden. Asked in the Fox poll whether the vice president should continue to praise the president or separate himself from Mr. Clinton, 71 percent said the latter. This is the flip side of the credential Mr. Gore has earned by being given serious responsibilities in the administration. He may be a better prepared candidate for the White House, but he is badly tarnished from the association.

For the White House, the danger in the negative trend of the opinion polls is that they will become self-fulfilling. As disapproval of the war policy becomes more widespread, politicians of both parties will feel increasingly free to criticize Mr. Clinton.

Republican attacks

Attacks from the Republicans may be discounted in many cases by the suspicion among the voters that they are being driven by partisanship.

But there is also rising criticism among Democrats, including Jimmy Carter. And it shouldn't be forgotten that Bill Clinton has few close friends or allies in the party in the aftermath of the Lewinsky affair. The president used up most of his reservoir of good will by lying to so many people for so long.

Mr. Gore, by contrast, has enough friends and alliances within the party to establish him as the clear favorite for the presidential nomination next year. But declining poll numbers are a heavy burden for any presidential candidate, and the prospect now is for the crisis in the Balkans extending at least through the summer.

More to the point, there is no prospect of a solution that might reverse those trends in the polls.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 5/31/99

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