Oh, He So Cares About the Polls

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Ryan Sager (read his book) takes issue with my dismissal of Mario Loyola's adoration of the president, arguing that Bush's "unique disregard for public opinion" is "a positive trait."

Where he's gone against conservative principles is in areas where he simply doesn't have any conservative principles. For a man who came into office without a foreign policy, Bush is uniquely unengaged in domestic policy.

He sold-out small-government values on education in his first major bill as president because he really doesn't believe the government is the problem in public schools—he thinks the federal government just needs to enforce stricter standards.

He gave free-market health-care reform short shrift and signed the Medicare prescription-drug bill because he didn't see anything particularly wrong with massively expanding the size of the welfare state.

He signed off on pork-filled highway and farm bills because reducing pork has never been a priority in his administration.

These aren't moral failings, or a failure to stand up for what he believes in. He simply doesn't believe in a number of principles that used to define conservatism.

I'll buy some of that, but I don't buy that Bush ignores public opinion. He "ignores public opinion" the same way a losing kiddie soccer team ignores its 0-11 scores. He's obviously peeved when he's down in the polls, or when Americans rebuff one of his initiatives. It was pretty clear in his yesterday's press conference, but it was clearest in the 2005 Social Security campaign (an initiative I actually supported, at first). Bush was clearly angry that the polls were turning against him and tried to reframe the fight as his courage versus the whims of a wimpy public.

What Marlo wants to know is
whether or not we've got the courage, the political courage to take
this issue on and solve it.  That's what she wants to know. And what I
want to assure you all is that I like calling Congress to do big
things, because that's what we got elected to do.

He eventually gave up that fight, of course. And he had claimed, as he had claimed about vetoing pork-stuffed appropriations packages, that he was in it to win it and wouldn't give up, damn the polls and damn the torpedos. He did the same, as Sager points out, on McCain-Feingold. He caved on the Department of Homeland Security—a big government disaster he originally claimed to oppose—when he (or Karl Rove) saw how it could be thumped over the crania of the Democrats.

There's nothing wrong with retooling an agenda or message to stay afloat and push it through Congress. (OK, it depends on how you retool the actual agenda.) And it's expected that an administration will try to paper over its shifts and mood changes and claim not to care about the polls. But it obviously pays attention to polls in doing so.

(Cross-posted on AS.com.)

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  1. Sager is way off the mark to say that Bush’s actions regarding education, health care and “pork” show a lack of concern for public opinion. Democrats had beating Republicans up with both education and health care, which is why the Administration is pouring billions (ultimately, trillions) into those two areas. And what is unpopular about pork-barrel spending? What Sager means is that Bush pandered to public opinion while defying small-government conservative principles.

  2. IOW Bush ain’t dancin’ with the one that brung him.

  3. I still don’t understand why anyone really thinks this is a conservative administration. It’s friendly to business and fundamentalists, but more populist than conservative. Populism doesn’t have any core values, so shifting directions and even tactics is perfectly legitimate, whether or not the populist admits doing so.

  4. The easiest way to see if his administration cares about polls is to see if it pays for running them. The answer is yes, it does. So, that’s pretty much that.

    Personally, I think it would be sort of neat if we had politicians who ran on the platform that they would periodically take polls on major policy issues and then follow the results regardless of what they were. I wouldn’t mind trying that system out, at least for a term or so, to see if it would really work.

  5. This post, of course, fails to point out how many conservtives changed their own tune to sidle up to Bush on some of these very issue.

    On “No Child Left Behind” I’ve heard more than one conservative (persons and pundits) justify it as “just enforcing standards.” Same with the medicare reforms, the war, Social Security reform, etc.

    My point is that while Bush may not “believe in a number of principles that used to define conservatism,” a lot of people who currently define conservatives don’t either…and probably never did.

  6. I’ll buy the argument that Bush might not read anything, but I guarantee Rove has polling numbers oozing out of every orifice.

  7. I’ll buy the argument that Bush might not read anything, but I guarantee Rove has polling numbers oozing out of every orifice.

    “I Don’t _________” is Bush code for “I have someone else who does that for me.”

    Try inserting any oddball word or phrase in there like “think” or “read newspapers” or “drink alchohol.” Try it…it’s fun.

  8. “I think it would be sort of neat if we had politicians who ran on the platform that they would periodically take polls on major policy issues and then follow the results regardless of what they were. I wouldn’t mind trying that system out, at least for a term or so, to see if it would really work.”

    I said much the same in anothr thread. I don’t understand why people think that’s wimpy. They’re not supposed to go their own way, they’re hirelings.

  9. “I still don’t understand why anyone really thinks this is a conservative administration. It’s friendly to business and fundamentalists, but more populist than conservative. Populism doesn’t have any core values, so shifting directions and even tactics is perfectly legitimate, whether or not the populist admits doing so.”

    The thing is, there’s the Bush administration’s OVERT policymaking, and their COVERT policymaking.

    Their overt policymaking is the populist stuff. The covert policymaking (whiting out grants for college students studing evolutionary biology, for instance) is the policy meant to appease the base (business and churchies.)

    The Bush appointees quietly beaver away on this stuff in their agencies.

  10. I’ll just be glad when this adminstration is gone. Sadly, though, I’m not optimistic that it will be replaced by anything better…which is really pretty Goddamn sad.

    If no one can do better than these ass clowns, it’s time to pack it all up and move to New Zealand.

  11. He’s obviously peeved when he’s down in the polls, or when Americans rebuff one of his initiatives.

    When has he ever denied that bad polls bother him? What he said yesterday was that even though he cared that his poll numbers were low, he wasn’t going to change what he was doing to raise them.

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