Numbers Don’t Lie: Bush Is in Trouble

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Now the triumphal pronouncements have been replaced by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.