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(MIS)PLAYING THE POPULARITY CARD

By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2002, The Boston Globe

May 19, 2002

If George W. Bush learned only one thing from his father's presidency, it was that high marks in the opinion polls are no guarantee of future triumph in the other kind of poll. During the Gulf War in early 1991, the first President Bush's approval ratings soared to nearly 90 percent. Twenty months later, he was thrown out of the White House with just 37 percent of the vote -- the worst repudiation of a sitting president since William Howard Taft's defeat 80 years before.

When you work for a popular president, it can be tempting to dismiss criticism by pointing to your man's public acclaim. Early in the first Bush administration, a reporter confronted Secretary of State James Baker with criticism by the Senate Democratic leader about the White House's diffident Eastern European policy. Baker replied smugly that "when the president of the United States is rocking along with a 70 percent approval rating on his handling of foreign policy," the comments of the Senate Democratic leader could be safely ignored.

Mindful of the fate of Bush I, aides to Bush II know better than to ever make that argument. Or do they?

Last week, Democrats raised a fuss over a Republican plan to solicit money by selling a photograph of Bush taken soon after the attack on Sept. 11. The picture is perfectly innocuous: It shows the president on Air Force One, talking on the phone with Vice President Dick Cheney. Yet it was condemned by Al Gore and Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe as "grotesque" and "disgraceful" (two words they never used when Bill Clinton was renting out the Lincoln Bedroom and dispensing White House coffee at $25,000 a cup).

When the criticism was put to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, he flatly dismissed it. The photo, he said, simply showed the president "doing his job for the American people." He should have stopped there. Instead he felt compelled to add, "I think the Democrats are having a very difficult time coming to grips with the fact that this is a very popular president."

Well, maybe they are and maybe they aren't, but two things ought to be clear. (1) Bush's popularity will not always be this high; like all presidents, he is subject to the law of political gravity. (2) The more importance the White House attaches to protecting Bush's popularity, the worse a president he will make.

When it comes to foreign policy, Bush has shown an admirable indifference to poll numbers. The media clamor notwithstanding, he announced early on that the United States would pull out of that sacred cow, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. Similarly, he notified Russia last December that the United States would withdraw from the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an impediment to developing a new missile defense system.

While his Middle East messages have been been somewhat muddled lately, his sympathy for Israel's war against Arab terrorism is unmistakable -- as is his disgust for Yasser Arafat, whom he has refused even to meet. And just last month, Bush confirmed that the United States would play no part in an International Criminal Court -- once again braving howls from the editorial pages.

But when it comes to domestic issues, that principled steadfastness is getting harder and harder to spot.

In order to claim credit for something labeled "education reform," Bush allied himself with Ted Kennedy and signed a bill that vastly expands the federal role in local education but includes almost no element of meaningful school choice. In March, he waltzed away from his commitment to free trade and imposed stiff new tariffs on steel imports. His cave-in was universally seen as political -- a pander to steel interests in states he needs to get re-elected. But what does it profit a president to gain West Virginia and Pennsylvania, if he forfeits his reputation for standing on principle?

Last week, the president signed a bloated farm bill, a $190 billion bucket of slops that rips off American consumers in order to enrich a relative handful of farmers in the South and Midwest. This, too, was said to be politically necessary -- a must if the Republicans hope to win back control of the Senate. What isn't clear is how Bush and the GOP can ever win back the voters who believed them when they said they wanted to end agricultural welfare as we knew it.

Presidents hoping for re-election too often hoard their political capital instead of spending some of it -- they do the wrong thing, knowing it's the wrong thing, because they think it makes good politics. Sometimes they get away with it. But sometimes they succeed only in disillusioning their own supporters.

As Bush has good reason to know. In 1988, his father uttered the most famous ironclad vow in modern presidential politics ("Read my lips: No new taxes.") Two years later he broke it -- and thereby broke faith with millions of his supporters. In 1992, they were his supporters no longer, and the first George Bush was out of a job. Let the second George Bush profit from his example.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe
His E-mail address is -
jacoby@globe.com
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