"Where are yesterday’s gods?"
In modern American democracy, every day is Election Day. Every week, every day, a new poll comes out judging the president’s performance and popularity. Our polling obsession makes our presidential system much more akin to a parliamentary one. When an incumbent president’s job-approval ratings sink below 50%, he becomes like a British prime minister who has just lost a vote of confidence in parliament. Unlike his Anglo equivalent, he needn’t resign, but if his ratings don’t improve he might as well leave for all the good he can do.
An incumbent who is bleeding with ratings under 50 attracts the sharks, who impose their own agenda on his administration, and invites defections from his own party, compromising even his control of Congress. As his low ratings breed even lower ones, he comes to embody two metaphors that come from the Nixon Administration: He twists slowly in the wind — a helpless, pitiful giant.
It was thus with Bill Clinton in the aftermath of his 1994 defeat, when he had to tell the media that he was still relevant, so obvious was his powerlessness. And it threatens to become this way with George Bush unless the President wakes up and realizes that the American presidency is a job you have to win each and every day to govern with power.
Mark Noonan at Blogs for Bush - who quite obviously is not a pollster - vehemently disagrees, and in the process, I think, misses the point:
Morris does make a semi-correct case: that a President must use the bully pulpit of the White House to sell his program again and again to the American people. But to act like it is always September in an election year is to allow the means to overwhelm the ends. President Bush doesn't want (or need) good polling results - he needs to advance his agenda....
A President's time is a precious commodity - he can only do so much at any given time and he can't afford to be drawn into debates on the opposition's issues. President Bush could have spent the last four months offering a point by point defense against every absurd charge thrown at him vis a vis the War on Terrorism - and thus got bogged down in an endless debate. Or, he could have done what he did - let them blow their smoke and huff and puff until the right psychological moment to re-affirm original principle and in the process make his opponents look small and petty-minded.
Noonan's first sentence above neatly summarizes Morris' critique. If only he'd stopped there.
1) Morris' argument is that advancing the President's agenda is a function of good polling results. There is, in other words, a synergy between the two that gets smothered if he isn't out on the permanent campaign trail.
2) Morris' argument was not that Dubya get in a defensive crouch, endlessly rebutting each and every crazy accusation hurled against him. That's what surrogates are for, as the masterful Clinton "instant response" operation amply demonstrated.
3) If Mr. Bush only occasionally enters the fray - whether or not at "the right psychological moment" - he raises the stakes for each sortie to appalling levels. And, more to the point, it constitutes a more or less perpetual mindset of "playing from behind."
Hey, there was no bigger foe of Sick Willie than I, but you can't deny the success of his permanent campaign template. He survived and thrived in the midst of multiple scandals any one of which would have crippled any of his predecessors.
My biggest criticism of the President last year was precisely that he didn't follow the Clinton model. From the end of major combat operations in Iraq in May 2003 until Super Tuesday last year when John Kerry clinched the Democrat nomination - a period of ten months - Bush was nowhere to be found. He was, to employ a pun of questional contextual taste, "AWOL". He abandoned the political field to his enemies, who proceeded to pound the living bejesus out of him, steadily beating down his poll numbers until, despite the capture of Saddam Hussein in December of '03, he was tied with, or a little behind, a pompous-assed, sphincter-mouthed extremist stiff (essentially Al Gore without the twang), where he remained for the ensuing six months.
That GDub forged ahead after the GOP convention and eventually hung on at the wire - hell, that he wasn't blown out in the spring and summer, rendering the fall garbage time - was a function not of "right psychological moments," but the manifest awfulness of his opponent. If he'd been facing an adversary of any significant degree of savvy, quality, and discipline - i.e. Hillary Clinton - the son, as it were, would have followed in the father's one-term footsteps.
But there is another factor that neither Morris nor his lilliputian barrister appear to have considered: the nature of Bush's agenda and his very style of governance.
To put it grandiously, Dubya is the polar opposite of Bill Clinton. Clinton tried for big ticket initiatives (the tax hike, HillyCare) in his first biennium and got indirectly crucified for them in the 1994 midterms, after which he became poll-obsessed and, as a consequence, never attempted anything bold again. And the result of that was, not surprisingly given the slavish obeisance of the media, that he enjoyed a broad but shallow popularity that he clung to like a life preserver in the scandal hurricanes that finally engulfed him.
GDub couldn't be more different. He has never paid the polls any heed, governed from day one (as Ronald Reagan once put it) as though he were never running for president again, and sought big-ticket initiatives that were popular with the people, as opposed to the left-wing establishment (the war, tax cuts, constitutionalist judges, and yes, Social Security reform). He hasn't tried to get out in front of where he guessed the people were going; he has charted a course and gotten the people to follow him.
In a political landscape like the one that has existed since at least 1992, that means constant, full-scale political combat, in which Mr. Bush has only periodically engaged. And with the media arrayed against him as vehemently as they were in Clinton's back pocket, that means poll numbers that will, absent "rally around the flag" national emergencies like post-9/11, never be as outwardly dazzling as those of Mr. Bill.
This President will never govern by focus group. But even maximizing his public relations efforts - which he should be doing - won't make a dramatic difference in his approval numbers, even adjusting for the built-in bias.
But history will little note nor long remember where Bush rated in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup/ABC/WaPo/NBC/Wall Street Journal/CBS/New York Times/Associated Press/Ipsos/Pick-A-Number survey in June of 2005. It will, however, recognize a transformation of the Middle East for the better.
Not a bad legacy for the man dispossessed of the obscene vanity that is the only legacy his predecessor will ever have.