- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2001

Pollsters shook their heads in disbelief when they read the front page of the New York Times last week. The lead story reported that President Bush's polling scores were collapsing across the board.

There did not seem to be any issue or policy for which Mr. Bush was given high marks. On leadership, on his agenda, policy-making, how he is viewed abroad as a result of his European trip, you name it, virtually all of the president's numbers were falling.

To hear the Times tell it, this is a presidency in steep decline. Apart from Mr. Bush's 53 percent job approval rating, down an unremarkable and statistically irrelevant 2 or 3 points since the last time it was measured, the Times' account was unremittingly dismal.

The Times, of course, is notorious for rigged polls that almost always tilt toward Democratic voters. Independent pollster John Zogby, who has earned a reputation for remarkable accuracy and fairness in his polling over the last few elections, told me that at first he couldn't figure out why the Times' polls were so far away from the general consensus. Then he realized what they were doing.

The Times polls "adults" around the country by telephone, which means that anyone 18 years of age or older who answers the phone and agrees to answer questions is included in the poll. The problem with this methodology, says Mr. Zogby and many other pollsters, is that "it tilts heavily toward the Democrats."

What you get with this kind of polling is a sample with a disproportionate number of lower-income and middle-income minority-group members who tend to be Democrats or Democratic-leaners. More often than not, they dislike Mr. Bush.

Instead of screening respondents to include only people who have voted in the last election, or people who are "likely voters" which would create a broader and much fairer sample, the Times knows that its narrower pool of polling subjects will produce the strongly anti-Bush responses that it wants.

Republican pollster Ed Goeas is president of the respected Tarrance Group, which carries out many bipartisan surveys with a Democratic polling firm. Mr. Goeas noted something else about the Times' poll. It was conducted on the weekend. This is a no-no among most pollsters because, for a variety of demographic reasons, a disproportionate number of people who answer the phone on weekends tend to be liberal Democrats.

It seems as if the Times did everything it could in its poll to insure that it got the kind of result it wanted. But conscientious pollsters who know how political polling can be tilted toward one group or another, and who know the basic rules of good, accurate polling, think that this is a poll that was "not fit to print."

Polling aside, the past five months of Mr. Bush's presidency has seen some major victories and some relatively minor stumbles par for the course in virtually all new administrations.

Against all the naysayers who predicted that he would have to modify or abandon his conservative agenda because of the closeness of his election, Mr. Bush got his tax cut through Congress (the third-largest tax cut of the past 40 years), and is on the brink of getting his education reforms passed, too. All in record time.

He persuaded Congress to adopt a budget that would modestly apply the brakes to excessive spending increases. And Democrats are revising the patients' bill of rights to meet his objection that it would turn our health-care system over to the trial lawyers. He appears to be making headway with moderate Democrats and black religious leaders with regard to his faith-based grant initiative.

Elsewhere, his presidential commission is hard at work writing the rules for setting up private Social Security investment accounts. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is creating a visionary plan to modernize the military, making it leaner, meaner and more high-tech.

Mr. Bush's first national security test was the downed surveillance plane in China. He handled it coolly and expeditiously.

His European trip won praise at home and abroad for the way he handled himself, and because he refused to be pushed around by our allies or adversaries. He ditched the Kyoto agreement, killed the ABM treaty, pushed development of an anti-missile system and gave NATO expansion a fresh new start.

He clearly charmed Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said last week that he had forged a "very high level of trust" with Mr. Bush. He plans to visit him at his Texas ranch later this year, and administration insiders say we can expect some foreign-policy breakthroughs during the visit.

There were missteps, of course. The White House just did not seem to know how to shape and sell its environmental policies and got itself mired in some rules changes that sounded as if they were endorsing arsenic in drinking water.

The president's policy team also did not seem to know how to respond effectively to the Democrats' demagoguery on electricity rates in California. In the end, they chose to create more price controls, which will only make the problem worse.

I think the White House made the right move to abandon the bombing range on the populated island of Vieques, but it might have been wiser if political adviser Karl Rove had not been perceived by the Washington news media as a key player in the decision.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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