Thursday, April 11, 2002

Joshua Marshall is again today going on about polling in the Bush administration --- he's been all over the subject for two weeks and he's still shocked, shocked! that Bush is spending substantial amounts of money on polls, and pursuing the actual amount spent with great alacrity, as if it really mattered whether it's slightly over $1 million, or not too much under.

I don't get it.

This story started with a Washington Monthly piece by Joshua Green, which compared Bush's use of pollsters in these terms to Clinton's:

... while Clinton used polling to craft popular policies, Bush uses polling to spin unpopular ones---arguably a much more cynical undertaking.

Which could, of course, be spun back right the other way: while Bush tries to find the best way to sell policies which he thinks are right for the country, Clinton cynically casts about for policies that would be easy to sell. And there's at least as much truth to the pro-Bush spin, in this case. Do Marshall and Green really expect politicians in a democracy not to care what the public thinks, or not to pay to find out? Trying to play philosopher-king just doesn't work, as Hillary Clinton found out the hard way with her disastrous health-care initiative.

It's not as if I've been any particular friend of the Bush administration, but complaining that it's "cynical" for them to even hire a pollster is naive. And complaining about remarks from Bush administration officials, including Bush himself, which soft-pedal and downplay the use of polls (even though they do in fact use them) isn't much better; to some extent, they're just acknowledging the difference Green pointed out.

So, it really doesn't make sense to go after Bush for cynicism in his use of polls. If you want to find cynicism in the Bush administration you have to look elsewhere.

It's not as if you have to look far. Look at his protectionist tariffs on steel and textiles, which are in fact craven pandering to small groups of swing voters, and were advocated as such in cabinet meetings by his own trade representative. Or his energy policy process, in which energy industry groups were consulted extensively, and their recommendations were allowed to dictate administration policy, but a single no-name staffer was given less than forty-eight hours to telephone eleven different environmental groups, survey their policy proposals, and identify "some we might like to support that are consistent with the administration energy statements to date".

That's cynicism. Polling is just smart.

It's no secret why the Bush administration keeps its polling data, and the use of it, quiet: talk about polling is a kind of political inside baseball which is intensely boring to anyone outside the beltway. If it gets in the middle of your sales pitch, you won't make the sale, so you don't want to be talking about polls in public. And you don't want anyone else to be either, so you take steps to minimize leaks. In declaring one of Bush's statements denigrating polling the "Whopper of the Week" (ironically enough, one completely consistent with Green's thesis quoted above), Slate declared that "poll-taking polls badly". That's not quite right; what polls badly is talking about polls, not using them --- something Bush's opponents might want to consider before talking too much about his polling.

(Update: Avedon Carol points out this column from Mark Shields, which lists a few of the things that Bush's opponents should be talking about.)

(Further update: Charles Kuffner quotes Green quoting Bush to the effect that "he governs 'based on principle and not polling or focus groups'", and then asks:

They made a big deal about not using polls when in fact they do use polls and go to some trouble to hide that fact. What would you call that if not cynical?

But by even Green's account, they don't use polls to govern; they use them to spin. If Bush's critics have lost sight of the difference between spin and governance, that's their problem, not Bush's. What's cynicism on the part of the Bush crowd is when, having made that statement, they then do govern based on polls --- which was pretty clearly the case in their trade policy. But simply hiring a pollster is not a cynical act. Does anyone think that politicians in a democracy are supposed to just not care what the public thinks?)


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