For weeks now, those three little words have served as the ultimate discussion stopper. A conversational coup de grâce. Whether offered up on TV talk shows or tossed across dining room tables, that magic number the president's robust postwar job approval rating has been as effective at quelling any disagreement with the Bush administration's selectively bellicose foreign policies or its suicidal tax cuts as a laser-guided bunker-buster bomb.
Seventy-seven percent. The president is triumphant. Seventy-seven percent. The president can do no wrong. End of discussion. End of democratic debate. Or so Bush and his handlers fervently hope.
Only it's not. It's just the beginning.
For starters, majorities can be and very, very often have been dead wrong. For instance, "Macarena" held the top spot on the Billboard singles chart for 14 straight weeks. Need I say more?
And I'm not even pointing out to the president that a majority voted against him in 2000.
But let's put aside for the moment the ludicrousness of basing anything on increasingly inaccurate opinion polls with their plummeting response rates, laughably small samplings and precision-flouting margins of error and take a closer look at the latest numbers. You'll see that the president isn't flying anywhere near as high as Karl Rove would like us to believe.
For one thing, in the latest Newsweek poll, the president's approval rating has already slumped to 65% a 12-point drop since the post-fall-of-Baghdad euphoria that goosed him up to the double sevens. And even that pales in comparison with the 89% rating his father sported after the Gulf War.
The instability of the president's putative popularity becomes even more apparent when the subject of the polls is switched from the war in Iraq to the floundering economy at home. Only 49% of Americans approve of Bush's handling of the economy, and more than half think that he is not paying enough attention to the issue. That is a big problem for the White House because a majority of those polled cite the economy as their top concern. I'm sure Team Bush wishes the rest of us were paying as little attention to the economy as he is.
It's no wonder Rove is struggling so mightily to make 2004 about little more than picking a cockpit-ready commander in chief. But being president entails a lot more than making tail-hook landings and ordering last-minute bombing runs on restaurants and mosques where Saddam Hussein might be hiding. It requires vision and leadership and the ability to come up with a way to deal with 6% national unemployment that doesn't include hammering Congress to pass yet another tax cut for the rich or repeating the word "jobs" close to three dozen times in a single speech, as the president did two weeks ago.
But even if you put all that aside and focus exclusively on the "endless war" the administration seems determined to wage or at least determined to campaign on the White House's reliance on polling seems destined to blow up in all of our faces.
Can you think of anything more preposterous and dangerous than determining matters of war and peace on the basis of public opinion surveys? Yet all indications are that Bush and chief strategist Rove are chronic poll watchers and takers. A scary thought when you consider how consistently unreliable polls are.
Take the case of a Los Angeles Times poll conducted during the early days of the Iraq invasion. According to the survey, 50% of Americans were in favor of expanding the fighting in the Middle East to include Iran if it continued to develop nuclear weapons. Impressive. And utterly dubious. Just one week after the L.A. Times' headline-grabbing findings, a Gallup poll on the same subject came up with wildly contradictory results, determining that a whopping 69% of Americans opposed an invasion of Iran, even if it was proved to be developing WMDs or aiding terrorists.
So which was it? Were Americans gung-ho to take on Iran, or did the thought send a shiver up our collective spine? And what if the Wolfowitzes of the world had used the first numbers to convince Rove that a preemptive strike against Iran would be a good political move? Would the Gallup findings have then led the president to make an apologetic call to the ruling ayatollahs in Tehran: "Sorry, fellas, my bad. But that's polling for ya!"
It's bad enough taking a poll to determine whether the public is in favor of requiring schoolkids to wear uniforms; it's downright Strangelovian to ask them whether they are in favor of attacking a sovereign nation. Even if your approval rating is 100%.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times