- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Nothing recedes like success.

Reality intrudes in unexpected places. You could ask Howard Dean. If he’s not careful, George W. Bush, too, might one day soon demonstrate that what goes up must come down, and usually on someone’s head.

Mr. Bush, or his handlers, have assumed for months that since there’s no way for their man to lose he can tell his base of unwashed rednecks, Bible thumpers and small-town hicks to sit down and shut up, and lavish compassion and concern on people who are nice, compassionate and always vote for liberals and Democrats. In this formulation, Nice People, being nice, can be persuaded to vote for Republicans if the White House can only get the message across: “We’re not as bad as you think.” This is “the Republican disease” — republicanus flaccida, in the medical texts — and although it occasionally lapses into occasional remission, there’s no cure for it.

The president and Karl Rove, his guru, should read carefully the entrails of the latest New York Times poll. Mistrusting the polls, and particularly polls conducted for the New York Times and CBS News, is generally a wise thing to do. But mistrusting them is not the same as ignoring them.

The president continues to get high marks for dealing with Islamist terrorism — 68 percent of those polled approve of his performance. But on three other issues, including the economy, the news is grim: 48 percent approve of how he is dealing with the war in Iraq, 47 percent approve of his foreign policies and, grimmest of all, only 44 percent say he’s doing a good job on the economy. It’s not necessarily “the economy, stupid,” this year, but the economy is always crucial, and it gets even more so as November approaches.

The poll results have the ring of truth because they comport with the rumbling in the president’s base about his deliberate retreat on several key issues, beginning with the wild abandon with which Republicans are throwing billions at “special interests” and extravagant schemes in the way Republicans traditionally accuse Democrats of doing (anyone for Mars or the moon?). The administration caved on affirmative action, the president has a practiced wink at suspicious Islamist extremists in pursuit of the Muslim constituency in key states, and, most recently, he disappointed his friends with an amnesty scheme for illegal immigrants that no one is supposed to call an amnesty.

By now the economy was supposed to have given George W. a lift in the polls. With the tax cut having jump-started consumer spending, accompanying booming productivity and growth rates, the president’s approval rating on the economy ought to be approaching the clouds. But it isn’t, illustrating first of all that the gap between the red states and the blue states is as deep and wide as it was in November 2000. The prescription-drug entitlement, which was to have transformed the Republican president from grinch to godfather, apparently didn’t. Only bigots with hearts of stone oppose the immigration amnesty scheme, but it landed with a thud heard even behind the foot-thick walls of the White House.

And it’s not just the president. The annual ratings of the American Conservative Union, which traditionally determine who’s a conservative and who’s a liberal, reveal just how far the president and his party have stumbled down the slippery slope. In 2002, 19 Republican senators scored a hundred percent; last year, none did. Six senators who scored a perfect hundred in 2002 are no longer rated as “conservatives” by the ACU. The good news is that Democrats are moving right as fast as the Republicans are moving left. Three senators who had perfect liberal scores two years ago are no longer rated as reliable liberals.

The gurus and the pundits had it all figured out in Iowa, and now the caravan moves on to New Hampshire, and by the end of the week the talking heads will have everything figured out. There’s a caution here, even for presidents.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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