Backslapping Bush Bowls Over Media

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

“Presidential.”

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

his shortcomings.”

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

its policies.

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. Backslapping Bush Bowls Over Media