UC Berkeley News


Who doesn’t need a weatherman?
The chancellor relishes an opportunity to grill high-powered faculty prognosticators on the political questions of the season

05 May 2004


Chancellor Berdahl was joined by (from left) political scientists Steven Weber and Bruce Cain, and Haas Business School dean Tom Campbell for a special edition of “Bear in Mind.” The four discussed a wide range of political questions — from terrorism and the war in Iraq to the impact of the domestic economy and the character of the candidates themselves on the upcoming presidential election.
Steve McConnell photo

In a special election edition of “Bear in Mind” taped late last month, Chancellor Robert Berdahl conducted a lively roundtable discussion with three campus experts on the political scene: Steven Weber, associate professor of political science and director of the MacArthur Program on Multilateral Governance at Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies; Bruce Cain, Robson Professor of Political Science and director of the Institute of Governmental Studies; and Tom Campbell, dean of the Haas School of Business and former five-time U.S. Representative from Silicon Valley.

In the following excerpt from that program, the chancellor and his guests explore the ongoing challenge the United States faces in Iraq. What impact will the turmoil there have on the presidential election? Will continued fighting and more U.S. casualties drag down President Bush, or will voters rally around the sitting president? And will the administration be asked — and be able — to justify its actions in that troubled country?

An excerpt can provide only the flavor of the back-and-forth that made this half-hour program go by so quickly. To enjoy the complete broadcast in its audio-only format, visit www.berkeley.edu/news/chancellor/bim/. In addition, a video of the program will be broadcast daily on UCTV the week of May 24; see www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/2004/05/05_uctv.shtml for further details about this and other Berkeley-related UCTV programming during May.

Berdahl: If the current conditions in Iraq prevail on through the summer, what do you think the impact will be on the voters’ views during the course of the election?

Campbell: It’s negative for the president. Every day, every week continues to bring bad news for the President politically. … Now, come June 30, the United States hands over authority, probably to the United Nations. It was going to be the Iraq Governing Council, but it doesn’t appear that they’ll be able to actually take authority.

Berdahl: Will the U.N. take authority?

Campbell: I don’t think they have any choice. If the United States says, “We invoke the authority of the United Nations in a peacekeeping role; we will continue with the troops under your direction,” it will be impossible for Kofi Annan to say, “We’ll have nothing to do with this.” What Kofi Annan and the members of the Security Council may say is, “You’re not helping us enough,” or “From now on we’re going to ask you to do something very different.” But to say, “We’re not going to do it at all” is not, I think, possible.

But going forward, the story politically is going to be American troops killed; it’s not going to be flowers cast before the oncoming personnel carriers, as Vice President Cheney had said would be the reaction when American troops rolled into Baghdad.

The one argument the other way is if a terrorist attack affects the United States. In my view, if that happens, God forbid, it will have a huge political benefit for the President. We tend to, and in that case surely will, rally around the President in a time of crisis. President Bush will portray himself, vis à vis Senator Kerry, as the man who is willing to use force to protect America, and if I’m any judge of politics, we will see advertisements suggesting that Senator Kerry would check with the French foreign minister before using force to defend America.

Berdahl: But the polls, it seems to me … they’ve confounded me, at least, because as we’ve had more and more revelations, through the books by people such as Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill, about the inattentiveness that the President has had — and as the circumstances in Iraq seem to be getting worse — his poll numbers stay the same. Bruce, how do you explain that?

Cain: First of all, the polling numbers at this point are soft, so you have to be careful about over-attributing any causation to what we’re seeing right now. But I think the reality is that about 80 to 85 percent of the likely voters in November have already made up their minds. So what you’re looking at is a fluctuation in the residual 15 percent. And one of the things we’ve learned over 30 or 40 years of public-opinion research is that when it’s an issue that affects the lives of citizens in a direct, immediate way, you can get some pretty good predictions about how they’re going to act. So you increase the motor-vehicle license fee, or you have a bad economy and lots of people get laid off — that affects the average citizen’s life, [and] that’s going to translate into very strong political undercurrents.

But when it’s foreign policy, it’s much harder to predict . . . because the reality is that most people are not losing members of their family to death in Iraq. There have been only about 700 deaths; it’s far less than what was going on in Vietnam. The administration has not yet, though they’re talking about it, [instituted] a draft; if they were to do a draft, you and I both know that that would energize a lot of people in the 18- to 21-year-old category. So it’s basically reservists and people who volunteered for the military, who believed in the cause, who are over there dying for a cause that some Americans believe in.

So all that translates into a fairly murky picture when you’re trying to predict what’s going to happen with U.S. public opinion. There’s evidence … that people are less confident that we went in there for a good reason, that the President really has an exit strategy and really knows what he’s doing.

On the other hand, after what was critically viewed within the Beltway as a rather weak performance in a [recent] press conference, the President did what he apparently wanted to do, which was to convey to this 15 percent of the electorate that doesn’t really find itself aligned one way or the other, that he’s strong and determined, that he has convictions. It gets back to everybody’s suspicion that when it comes to matters of terrorism, the public — or at least that segment of the public — doesn’t really know what’s right and what’s wrong, and what they want to see is somebody who’s strong and determined and has the right convictions. And for that small segment of the electorate, that seems to be enough for the moment.

Berdahl: Steve, let’s assume for the moment that the handover to the United Nations on June 30 does come off as planned and hoped for, apparently, by the administration. American troops will still be the dominant force there. From the standpoint of the Iraqi resistance, will anything have changed?

Weber: Bob, I have to take a step back and provoke a friendly disagreement with my colleagues. I think the United States is not actually in a position to hand over power to the United Nations, for the simple reason that there’s still a war going on in Iraq. I don’t see a mainstream Republican administration essentially creating a governance council that’s overseen by the United Nations where American troops’ lives are at stake. It goes against everything that they’ve said about their unwillingness to place American forces at the behest of other people’s decision-making authority.

I don’t actually know what’s going to happen on June 30; I’m not sure the administration knows There probably will be some form of … weakly legitimated Iraqi provisional authority that would be a replacement for what the Governing Council is now seen as, which is an instrument of American foreign policy; it’s not taken seriously by anyone inside Iraq.

Which means, come July 30, as the [U.S. political] conventions begin and the political battles heat up, I actually think the administration [will be] under an enormous amount of strain to step forward and justify now to the American people what they think the plan is, and how they would see the future in Iraq four years forward into a new administration. I don’t believe that the “strong and resolute” argument is going to play in this case, because there are a lot of people … who don’t think that the administration would have taken such a risky foreign policy action as placing 150,000 American soldiers in an incredibly hostile environment without a very strong sense that there was a huge upside to it politically. That to me meant they must have had evidence of weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq, though we now know that’s not true. And I think the administration is going to have to stand up to explain what they actually thought they were doing, the underlying justification for this…. The real politics are going to play out when the President is asked, and I think he will be asked, to place in some sort of larger strategic context his vision of what American presence in the world is going to look like.

Cain:He has been asked that question, he hasn’t answered it, and he hasn’t been hurt politically. So what’s his motivation to do what you want him to do?

Weber: The Democrats are going to come after him very hard on this in the fall, and the motivation is going to be a collapse in his polling numbers.