Sunday, April 30, 2006

Bush and Blair In Deep Trouble As Electoral Support Plummets on Both Sides of Atlantic

Bush's Approval Rating Hits Yet Another New Low in AP-Ipsos Poll; Blair Pressured to Quit As Britons Punish Labor Party In Voting Booth

By Skeeter Sanders

There's an old cliche that says: "Misery loves company."

That appears to be the case when it comes to the two Western leaders who have been the staunchest of allies in the global "war on terror": George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

President Bush's job-approval ratings hit yet another set of new lows last week. Beset by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, record-high fuel prices, the emotional (and increasingly racially-charged) debate over illegal immigration and the seemingly endless war in Iraq, Bush's overall public standing has sunk to 40 percent, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll.

Other polls released in the past week show the president's approval rating even lower, with only 38 percent approving of his performance as president in the Zogby International Poll, 37 percent approving in the Associated Press/Ipsos Poll, 33 percent approving in the ABC News/Washington Post Poll and 32 percent in the USA Today/Gallup Poll.

Even the Fox News Poll shows the president's approval rating at a dismal 33 percent, with the conservative-leaning network noting that Bush is "clearly damaged by sinking support among Republicans."

Growing Discontent Also on "The Other Side of the Pond"

But Bush is not alone. On the other side of the Atlantic, Prime Minister Tony Blair is also facing declining poll ratings. But unlike Bush, Blair's domestic political situation could be more seriously threatening to his continued tenure as Britain's chief executive.

Blair is facing a mounting challenge of restoring his government's authority after it became engulfed by three major scandals at once. London newspapers have had a field day, devoting entire pages to detail the political bombs that blew up almost simultaneously just days ahead of local elections widely seen by Britons as a crucial test of Blair's continued leadership.

The man once dubbed "Teflon Tony" for his ability to shrug off political dirt awoke last Thursday morning to a slew of banner headlines which screamed of a "triple whammy" to "a government in meltdown."

A bad showing by Blair's ruling Labor Party in this Thursday's municipal elections would likely heighten pressure on him to resign, paving the way for Finance Secretary Gordon Brown -- the Labor Party's deputy leader -- to take over as party leader and prime minister.

On what the London newspapers quickly dubbed "Black Wednesday" last week:

*** Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was forced to publicly apologize after admitting that he was carrying on an extramarital affair with one of his secretaries.

*** Home Affairs Secretary Charles Clarke, a key Blair ally, offered to resign in the face of a debacle over the release of foreign criminals from British prisons without deporting them.

*** Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt was jeered by unionized nurses angry over a controversial government health-care reform plan.

And if that wasn't enough, Britons were greeted on Saturday with the news that police had found marijuana resin in the Scotland home of Defense Secretary John Reid.

Sex Scandal Rocks No. 2 Man in Blair Government

Prescott apologized and voiced regret over his two-year affair with Tracey Temple, one of his secretaries. Blair told the British Broadcasting Corporation that he considered it "a private matter" and refused to comment further on it.

Prescott's wife, Pauline, was reported by the BBC to be "devastated" by the scandal. Mrs. Prescott, who almost never speaks publicly, has so far refused all media requests for interviews.

For his part, Brown defended Prescott amid growing calls for the deputy prime minister to resign over his affair.

Campaigning for Labor Party candidates in West London in advance of Thursday's elections, the finance secretary -- whose Cabinet post is known formally as the "chancellor of the exchequer" -- praised his Cabinet colleague as "a huge figure" in unifying the Labor Party after years of bitter ideological divisions.

But opposition Conservative Party members of Parliament are doggedly asking questions about reports that Prescott took Temple to the deputy prime minister's official residence.

Tory MP Derek Conway has written to the Cabinet Office to complain that Prescott may have violated the ministerial code of conduct if he entertained Temple at taxpayers' expense at the residence, located in the London suburb of Buckinghamshire.

Prescott's troubles grew worse today (Sunday) when The Mail on Sunday published an interview with Temple, in which she claimed, among other things, that she and Prescott had sex in Prescott's office and in a hotel room while Mrs. Prescott waited in the hotel's lobby downstairs.

The London tabloid reportedly paid Temple in excess of
£100,000 (over $182,000 U.S.) for her story. It also published excerpts from a series of diaries Temple had kept, detailing her affair with the deputy prime minister.

Firestorm Over Release of Foreign Criminals From Prisons

Clarke was forced to apologize last week after the BBC revealed that his ministry allowed 1,023 foreign prisoners -- including convicted rapists and murderers -- to walk free without considering them for deportation from Britain one they completed their sentences.

The home secretary admitted that at least five of the freed criminals promptly committed new crimes -- including a number of drug-related violent offenses.

As of late Saturday, police and immigration officers were undertaking a series of raids across Britain to detain some of the higher-risk offenders.

Opposition members of Parliament are demanding Clarke's resignation. Conservative MP David Davis said there had been "a massive failure."

Clarke did offer to step down, but Blair refused to accept it. The prime minister and other government and Labor Party officials are standing firmly by Clarke, with some arguing that changing the man at the top in the Home Office will have little to no effect on the task of dealing with the problem.

[However, the Sunday tabloid News of the World today quoted Blair as saying that there were "no excuses" for the release of the prisoners. "It was wrong and it shouldn't have happened,' he said. Blair added ominously that Clarke's future as home secretary "depends on what happens" to those who have been released.]

Blair told Parliament on Friday the British prison system had been "seriously and fundamentally at fault" for years. "There has been a systemic failure...over a very long period of time," he said.

The same circle-the-wagons attitude also prevails among Labor Party stalwarts about a change in occupants at No. 10 Downing Street, the official residence of Britain's prime ministers.

"It's a massive exaggeration to say that the government is in a meltdown," said Work and Pensions Minister John Hutton. "What [Blair] has made very clear he wants to serve a full term and I believe he should serve a full term," Hutton told BBC Radio. "I think he should get on and do the job."

Blair's third term as prime minister runs through the spring of 2010, although the next parliamentary election is likely to take place in 2009.

Health-Care Unions Go Ballistic Over Cost-Cutting Reforms

The third embarrassment for the Labor Party saw Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt become the target of jeers and heckles by unionized nurses during a health-care conference at the Royal College of Nursing in Bournemouth as she tried to explain her party's policy on dealing with public health care debts.

The otherwise mild-mannered nurses heckled, booed and stomped their feet as Hewitt stood at the podium, forcing her to abandon the end of her speech in what a BBC reporter said was a stormy, 50-minute session at the college's annual congress.

Health-care worker unions and organized labor in general -- long the backbone of the Labor Party's electoral constituency -- have criticized Hewett for saying that the government-owned National Health Service, the world's oldest public health-care agency, enjoyed its best year ever, despite a deep financial crisis that led to the NHS lopping off thousands of jobs.

With job security and pensions its chief concerns, some activists in the nurses' union are even talking about the union going on its first-ever strike -- a radical step for a union whose own rulebook dictates that its members never walk off the job, because of the potential negative effect on patient care.

The health-care imbroglio is only the latest skirmish in a longstanding feud between the Blair government and the Labor Party's core constituency that gave the party its name -- a left-wing constituency that includes many of the party's hard-line socialist old guard that Blair and his supporters forced out in a bitter intra-party power struggle in the mid-1990s.

The feud broke wide open in 2004 when the party expelled George Galloway, a firebrand left-wing member of Parliament, after Galloway sharply denounced Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq.

Galloway gained a measure of retribution against his former party in last year's parliamentary election when, running as an independent on a blistering anti-war platform, he ousted a longtime Labor Party incumbent in a London district with a heavily Muslim immigrant population.

Galloway has been an outspoken thorn in the side of both the Blair government and the Bush administration ever since -- including a visit to Washington last fall marked by testy exchanges of heated barbs and insults with Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Police Find Marijuana Resin in Defense Chief's Home

Britons were greeted on Saturday by what at first appeared to be even more shocking news: Police found a small quantity of marijuana resin inside the home of Defense Secretary John Reid in Lanarkshire, Scotland.

But it quickly turned out that the amount of resin that was found was too small to roll even a single joint with it.

Reid told the BBC that the marijuana --worth less than
£1 ($1.83 U.S.) -- was found in a guest room and that police had told him that it could have been there for years.

"I have no idea where it came from, or when," the defense secretary said.

Police from the municipality of Strathclyde said they would take no action against Reid over the find, made during a routine security sweep of Reid's rented house. They said Reid was not suspected of any crime and that the marijuana may have been left behind by a previous resident.

The pot reportedly was found while Reid was on an official visit to Afghanistan to visit British troops stationed there. Police said the "miniscule" sample weighed less than a gram and had a street value of a "measly" 85 pence ($1.55 U.S.).

In a written statement, Reid said: "There is absolutely no suggestion that this in any way involves me or members of my family and both I and the Strathclyde Police regard the matter as closed."

Loans-For-Parliamentary-Seats Scandal Also a Drag on Blair

As the wave of new scandals broke, the prime minister had already endured weeks of opposition attacks over his party's admission in February that it had accepted big loans from 12 businessmen -- some of whom were later nominated for seats in the House of Lords, the unelected upper house of Parliament, where the Conservatives hold a majority.

That controversy -- which bears a remarkable resemblance to the "sponsorship scandal" that toppled Canada's Liberal Party government in January -- is a huge embarrassment for Labor, which was elected in a 1997 landslide on the promise to be "whiter than white" after sleaze allegations damaged the previous Conservative government.

British Polls Show Support For Labor Party at Lowest Ebb Since Thatcher Era

A year after bouncing back from severe criticism of his support for the war in Iraq to win a third consecutive parliamentary election -- unprecedented in Labor Party history, albeit with a much-reduced majority -- the BBC's bombshell prison revelation has reduced to tatters the Blair government's much-ballyhooed vow to cut crime and expel foreigners it regards as a security threat to Britain.

According to several opinion polls in recent weeks, voter support for the Labor Party has plunged to its lowest point since 1987, when Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party government was in power and riding high.

Some observers, however, say that Labor's erosion of support may have more to do with British voters growing tired of Labor Party rule after nine years, as the polls were published just before the new wave of scandals broke.

A Bad Omen For Republicans In the U.S.?

With polls in Britain showing mounting discontent for the Labor Party after nine years in power -- and Canadian voters in January ousting the Liberal Party after 12 years in power -- the Republican Party in the United States is becoming increasingly worried that it could be next on the voters' electoral chopping block.

By next November's midterm congressional elections, the Republicans will have been in power on Capitol Hill for almost 12 years (save for 21 months when the Democrats controlled the Senate) and in the White House for nearly six.

Bush is barred by the Constitution from seeking a third term.

Vice President Dick Cheney is effectively barred from making his own run at the White House in 2008 by both his age and his health. Now 68 and with a well-known history of heart problems, Cheney would by 2008 be two years older than Ronald Reagan -- America's oldest-serving president -- when Reagan won the White House in 1980.

So Bush and Cheney both already are "lame ducks," even though they still have just over 2 1/2 years left in their tenure. But the term "lame duck" could also be used to describe many incumbent members of Congress who are up for re-election this November -- particularly Republicans.

As poor as the president's job-approval ratings are, those of the GOP-controlled Congress are even worse, with the NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll showing Congress in a full-scale free-fall.

Only 22 percent of Americans in the NBC/Journal Poll approve of Congress' performance -- the worst rating in the poll's history and an 11-point plunge from March. Worse still is the AP/Ipsos Poll, which shows Congress' approval rating at an all-time rock-bottom 18 percent. And no end to the slide is in sight.

Soaring Fuel Prices Driving Plunge in GOP's Approval Ratings

Commentators across the political spectrum agree that soaring gasoline prices are partly to blame. A whopping 77 percent of poll respondents say they feel uneasy about the economy due to rising prices at the pump, higher interest rates and the ever-balooning federal deficit.

Consequently, only 19 percent of poll respondents say they feel confident about the economy. The timing of the fuel-price increases -- just a month before the start of the peak summer driving season when demand for gasoline is at its highest -- is giving economists nightmare visions of $4-a-gallon or higher gasoline as early as mid-June.

It's the Economy, Stupid -- Again

Some economists already are privately expressing fears that the soaring cost of fuel will ultimately trigger a severe global recession -- just as they did in the late 1970s -- as price inflation drives consumers to the limit of their tolerance and they're forced to cut back sharply on spending.

This subsequent plunge in consumer spending, these economists say -- which fuels up to 80 percent of economic activity -- can trigger a vicious downward spiral of sharply falling retail sales, which would force retailers to cut back on inventory, forcing manufacturers to reduce output and lay off workers, increasing the unemployment rate.

That, in turn, would spook consumers, fearful of losing their own jobs, to cut back spending even more to concentrate on necessities and eliminate debt -- accelerating the cycle further and further downward.

"Gas prices and the deficit trump any other set of [economic] numbers," says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who co-directs the NBC/Journal Poll with his Republican counterpart, Bill McInturff. "It takes your breath away when you fill up for $50 or $60."

Indeed, the poll found that higher gasoline prices topped the list of events in the past six weeks that respondents say concern them the most. And that concern has led to a huge backlash against Congress and the president.

McInturff agrees that the sharp 11-point drop in Congress' approval rating is astounding. "That's a lot of movement in a four-to-six-week period," he said, attributing the bulk of the decline -- as Fox News did -- to a "shocking" plunge in approval by rank-and-file Republicans.

McInturff adds that it will be difficult for the president to substantially improve his standing, barring an improved situation in Iraq -- or some kind of "extraordinary" event.

Let's hope that the "extraordinary" event McInturff is talking about isn't -- God forbid -- another 9/11.

Or worse, a war with Iran.


Volume I, Number 23
Copyright, 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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