Death by a thousand paper cuts
Ruy Teixeira comments on the phenomena of Bush's poll numbers improving, despite bad news in Iraq, because any news on the foreign policy front will tend to improve his numbers because it is considered his strong suite:
Several people have noted in the comments section for yesterday's post that Bush has been benefiting from a continued focus on his strong suit, even if that suit is weakening. I agree. My fixation yesterday was on explaining the very recent bump up in his horse race performance, which I do think is consistent with a rally effect tied to the press conference. But the two points are not inconsistent: the focus on his strong suit set the stage for the rally effect.
And the key implicaton of the two points is the same: as the mix of issues in play becomes more evenly-balanced, the reduction in Bush's huge advantage in the national security/foreign policy area fundametally weakens his political position, He can't assume, as was formely the case, that his national security advantage will drown out everything else no matter what the mix of issues. He's no longer strong enough in that area for that to be a reasonable assumption.
These approval numbers are a dynamic system (one variable feeds into one function which produces a new variable which feeds back into the function that produced the first variable) and anyone familiar with dynamic systems should recognize this kind of behavior. Dynamic systems can produce results that seem oddly out of tune with what has just gone on before. That's why its called "Chaos Theory".
But, as Ruy seems to be alluding to, Bush can rely on this effect only to the extent that people continue to believe that national security and foreign policy are his strong suite. As each new scandal erupts over his handling of foreign policy, his approval numbers in those areas continue to be pulled down. Eventually they will reach the point where they will no longer provide a boost to his overall ratings when things go bad overseas. In fact, when they cross that magic line where people no longer automatically see Bush as strong on national security, they will actually magnify his overall problems.
In other words, we could, sometime in the future, see a dramatic down turn in Bush's overall approval levels once enough people come to the conclusion that he really isn't all that good at foreign policy (the tipping point, jumping the shark, what have you).
There is no magic bullet here folks. There is simply a series of small hits that, if repeatedly landed over an extended period of time, will bring down this particular giant. The worse thing the Democrats could do now would be to back off at the first sign that the "turtle in a boiling pot" strategy may not be working. That would only result in improved ratings for Bush on his strong suite which will produce more results like we saw this week.