The 100-day honeymoon of George W. Bush and the national media
was celebrated with a surfeit of banal analysis and superficial polling
data-nearly all of which ignored a fundamental question about his Presidency.
Why does Mr. Bush enjoy approval ratings of better than 55 percent when he is
pursuing policies that most voters clearly don’t like?
Certainly he has benefited from the supine Washington press
corps, whose leading voices still tend to discuss the new President in terms of
happy contrast with his predecessor. In keeping with this theme, the current
clichés echo the “character” propaganda of last year’s Republican campaign.
Unlike Bill Clinton, according to the predominant pap, Mr. Bush is
“straightforward,” “plain-spoken,” “steady” and in some vague sense
These flattering descriptions fill a vacuum formerly
occupied by critical (and frequently poisonous) coverage of the Clinton White
House. There is little mystery about why this has happened. The conservative
attack machine that blared continuous abuse of everyone associated with the
Clinton administration has been reprogrammed into an automated applause track.
The result was on display last weekend at the White House
Correspondents’ Dinner, an event that has reliably featured obnoxious personal
disparagement of the Clintons, to the undisguised delight of the assembled
reporters and pundits. Now that Mr. Bush is President, the only permissible
jokes were the mild tweaks he inflicts upon himself as disarming schtick. David
Carr of Inside.com reported that Saturday
Night Live comedian Darrell Hammond not only confined his dinner repartee
to wisecracks about the Clintons and Al Gore, but actually started sniffling
when Mr. Bush entered the Hilton ballroom.
“It was the perfect example of all the sucking up to Bush
that’s been going on every day in this town since he was elected,” complained
James Warren, the Chicago Tribune
bureau chief, who added, “We have been effectively emasculated …. It’s a
natural tendency of people, including reporters, to want to be liked, and that,
combined with some pretty impressive early discipline from the Bush people,
means that he is having a great honeymoon. So far, we’ve made a virtue out of
That strange alchemy is amplified by the powerful rightward
tilt of the American media in recent years. While the influence of network
newscasts and newspaper editorial pages shrinks, most political discussion is
relegated to cable television, an environment where Mr. Bush benefits from an
unprecedented ideological advantage. Emblematic of this trend was CNBC’s decision
to air a program on his first 100 days that featured commentary exclusively
from the staff of The Wall Street Journal editorial page. The
“Democrats” and “liberals” who offer their commentary on cable, strangely
enough, often tend to be Bush admirers who reserve their harshest remarks for
their own party.
Yet because the audience
for those broadcasts is relatively small, media bias doesn’t quite explain Mr.
Bush’s buoyancy in recent polls. However partisan the bulk of political
commentary may be, most Americans probably ignore most of it, just as they did
during the impeachment crisis. What really protects Mr. Bush from public
displeasure is that so much reportage and commentary dwells admiringly on the
“style” (or “discipline”) of his White House rather than on the substance of
How this imbalance affects mass opinion is shown in a poll
just released by the Pew Research Center. The Pew survey found roughly the same
approval rating for Mr. Bush as several other polls that marked his first 100
days, about 56 percent. But the Pew researchers also asked a few questions that
revealed a surprising ignorance about his least popular policies. Only 25
percent of the respondents were aware of his decisions about carbon-dioxide
emissions, and even fewer knew that he had ditched the Kyoto treaty.
Astonishingly, half of those polled said they had “heard nothing at all about
the debate over arsenic in drinking water.”
If this survey accurately reflects the dismal level of
public knowledge about White House environmental policy, then how likely is it
that people understand Mr. Bush’s approach to taxation, the economy and the
budget? Do they realize that his tax cuts are skewed to the wealthiest 1
percent of the population? Do they know that he plans to loot the Medicare
surplus to fund those tax cuts? Are they aware that he is somewhere to the
right of Ronald Reagan on most issues?
The obvious answer to such questions suggests still another
reason why Mr. Bush has escaped the difficulties that might otherwise afflict
an aggressively conservative President, especially one who lacks a popular
mandate. Although the Democratic leadership in Congress has resisted some of
his worst ideas, they have failed so far to communicate a message of opposition
and an alternative set of policies.
There is no real majority backing this President-and now it
is past time for someone to stand up and declare the honeymoon over.