Poll: GOP Leads on Foreign Policy, Trails on Domestic Issues
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 17, 1999; Page A1
Democrats continue to hold the advantage with the public on most domestic issues, but Republicans have reclaimed the lead on foreign policy as crises from Kosovo to China have become the center of political debate, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Republican leaders think they may have found an election issue for 2000 and have been pounding away at President Clinton's plans to send U.S. troops into Kosovo and for alleged laxity in safeguarding nuclear secrets from China.
The most striking shift in party ratings in the poll was on the handling of foreign affairs. Last fall, Democrats led 49 percent to 42 percent; now Republicans are preferred, 46 percent to 38 percent.
Lee H. Hamilton (Ind.), former Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and now head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said yesterday: "It is not surprising to me. You have a lot of crises that have developed, not of catastrophic proportions but of concern, and there's been very little effort to contain the damage."
But when it comes to the party Americans trust most to deal with "the main problems the nation faces over the next few years," the Post-ABC News poll found that Democrats hold a 47 percent to 37 percent advantage over Republicans. However, the Democratic margin on several key issues has shrunk. On the economy, the No. 1 concern of voters, Republicans have narrowed the Democratic advantage from 13 percentage points in September to five in the most recent poll.
More Americans also say they want Clinton and not Republicans in Congress to set the national agenda. Nearly half -- 47 percent -- of those interviewed said they would prefer to see the country go in the direction Clinton wants to lead it, while 29 percent would prefer to follow the GOP's path. Independents preferred Clinton's direction by nearly two to one.
The poll offered some hints that the president's seemingly unshakable hold on the American people may be weakening. Clinton's job approval rating in the latest Post-ABC News poll stood at 64 percent, down from 68 percent in February.
The proportion of Americans who said they "strongly approved" of his job performance fell from 46 percent to 38 percent in the past month.
Still, Clinton is far more popular than his GOP foes in Congress. A majority of those interviewed -- 56 percent -- said they disapproved of the job Republicans are doing, while 51 percent said they approved of congressional Democrats.
A total of 1,515 randomly selected adults were interviewed Thursday through Sunday. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Overall, Republicans have not managed to make progress on many traditional GOP issues such as crime and taxes, which could give an advantage to Democrats in next year's national elections. And they continue to lag far behind Democrats on critical election issues such as health care, Social Security and helping the middle class.
Political pollsters also questioned the significance of the shift toward the GOP on foreign affairs, noting that foreign policy rates very low among voters' concerns.
The House last week came within a few votes of rejecting Clinton's plan to send U.S. troops into Kosovo as part of a NATO peacekeeping force. Republicans in Congress and GOP presidential hopefuls also have voiced strong criticism of the administration after the disclosure of possible Chinese infiltration of the nuclear weapons lab in Los Alamos, N.M.
"Whether you look at Kosovo or China, the headlines say things aren't going so well," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "But we are still an eternity away from this being a major focus in the presidential race."
Democratic pollster Fred Yang agreed. "There's more foreign policy in the air, and most of the time, Republicans have the advantage on that issue," he said. "Our polling shows the president down a little on his handling of foreign policy. But if you listed all the issues people vote on, foreign policy would be last."
The Post-ABC News poll found that six in ten rated the handling of foreign affairs as a "very important" voting issue -- well behind the economy, Social Security, crime and education, among others.
The GOP remains the party of values and morality: 43 percent chose the Republicans as better able to encourage high moral standards and values, compared with 30 percent who selected the Democrats (17 percent chose neither party).
Other poll results suggest problems for a party that some think displayed excessive moral zeal during the impeachment trial. Nearly half of Americans (47 percent) said the Democrats better represent their own personal values, compared with 39 percent who said Republicans do so. Independents, a key swing group, chose the Democrats 41 percent to 34 percent on this measu
The survey also found that Republicans are viewed as the less tolerant of the two parties. Only one in five Americans said the GOP was the party that was more tolerant of different points of view, compared with 58 percent who chose the Democrats.
Though the majority of conservative Republicans said their party is tolerant of different viewpoints, moderate Republicans weren't so sure: 42 percent chose the Democrats, and 36 percent the GOP.
The survey suggests that Democrats do better on some of the broad themes that are beginning to surface in the early round of presidential campaigning. Democrats hold an 11-point advantage as the party best able to find "new approaches to solve old problems." They are seen as the party better able to reduce "political partisanship" and stand up "to lobbying groups and other special interests."
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.
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