Just the other day, a distinguished Washington columnist for
The New York Times assured his readers that his own paper’s June 21
front-page opinion survey-which tracked declining public confidence in George
W. Bush-was meaningless. It doesn’t matter, the columnist suggested, that
people are distressed by the President’s pandering to the wealthy, or that his
views on energy and the environment are generating widespread distrust, or that
on virtually every issue now pending in Congress, an overwhelming majority
disagrees with Mr. Bush.
None of this matters, according to the Op-Ed sage, because
no strong Democratic opponent to Mr. Bush has yet emerged for the next
Presidential election. Presumably, the columnist has privately urged his
publisher to erase all those wasteful national-polling expenses from the great
newspaper’s budget between now and 2004.
As an example of Republican spin, that column wasn’t
particularly adept. Its argument certainly doesn’t seem to have convinced many
Republican politicians, who are currently more preoccupied by next year’s
midterm elections than by the absence of a Democratic challenger to the
President. Unlike an Op-Ed columnist who enjoys a permanent sinecure, they know
that the President’s plummeting approval numbers might cost them their jobs.
They must have noticed that the favorable rating for their
party has declined just as rapidly as the President’s.
Only five months ago, right-wing Republicans were issuing
proclamations that hailed their control of both houses of Congress and the
White House. Why should they care if the election had actually revealed a
center-left majority among voters and left Congress almost perfectly divided? A
new era of conservative governance had arrived. Their enemies would be driven
before them, and they would remake America as envisioned by Tom DeLay.
Now the triumphal pronouncements have been replaced by
nervous whispering, at least in part because of those troubling poll results
reported by The Times and other news organizations. Republicans in Congress and
elsewhere are rediscovering what ought to have been obvious for some time: In a
country where doctrinaire right-wingers are a minority, the radical agenda
concealed behind Mr. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” is a political
liability. Having achieved their unfair tax cut, which hardly satisfied their
appetite, they have fallen to squabbling among themselves.
Conservatives complain that the President has too quickly
abandoned party positions on such issues as education vouchers and electricity
price caps. Moderates fret that he has held fast to unpopular plans such as
drilling for oil in Florida’s coastal waters and the Alaskan National Wildlife
Refuge (although there are signs that the White House is preparing to drop
those schemes, too). Even the dogmatic party leadership in the House is
beginning to distance itself from Mr. Bush.
Beholden as they are to the insurance and medical industries
that finance their campaigns, the House Republicans are warning the White House
that they will not support Mr. Bush’s threatened veto of legislation creating a
real patients’ bill of rights. The leading Republican voice on that issue,
Representative Charlie Norwood, has publicly denounced Mr. Bush’s advisers for
their crude manipulation of him and endorsed a Democratic version of the bill.
Speaker Dennis Hastert abruptly rejected the veto threat with a “compromise”
that permits aggrieved patients to sue insurers in state courts.
Mr. Bush’s enthusiasm for privatizing Social Security is
also making Republican officeholders jittery. Representative Tom Davis,
chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, has bluntly informed
White House political boss Karl Rove that he hopes this foolhardy project won’t
be pursued before November 2002. In Mr. Davis’ home state of Virginia, a white
Republican candidate just barely won an off-year election against a weaker
black Democrat who campaigned against privatization.
More broadly, the bitter gubernatorial primary in New Jersey
and the rumblings of dissent that followed the defection of Senator Jim
Jeffords are signs that the G.O.P. is becoming a narrow and regionalized party,
excessively dependent on its Southern base and its corporate financiers. Any
hope that Mr. Bush would reform his party, mute the extremists and move toward
the mainstream is diminishing. He lacks the stature and the intellectual depth
to accomplish that demanding task.
None of this necessarily means that Mr. Bush is headed
toward inevitable defeat, nor does Republican disarray compensate for
Democratic timidity. The Op-Ed sage was correct, if unoriginal, in observing that
you can’t beat somebody with nobody. He might have added that you can’t defeat
bad ideas with no ideas.
But polls indicating the President’s weakness do indeed
matter. To Republicans, they offer a warning about their continuing
estrangement from the public. To Democrats, they provide an encouragement to be
bold rather than “bipartisan.” To citizens, they prove that disgust with the
country’s direction is not nutty, but normal.
And with all due respect to that Op-Ed guy, Mr. Bush and his
advisers pay very close attention to all those opinion surveys. That’s why
they’re taking their own polls-and worrying about the results.