Of Course The Numbers Matter

Crossposted from Left of Center.

Unless you’ve been on a more complete hiatus from current events over the last few weeks than I, then you should know that Bush is staring down some really ugly approval numbers. 40% approval does not mean that people think you are doing “one heck of a job,” Bushie.

One would like to blame this on Katrina. Particularly Bush fans I’m sure would love to say that this is just a result of unfair press reports blaming El Presidente for something that he has no control over.

But a more careful eye would have noticed that Bush’s numbers were about as bad (even worse depending on the poll) prior to Katrina making landfall. The shiney and new finally wearing off of Iraq, Karl Rove’s little scandal, the Downing Street Memo, steadily rising gas profits…er… prices (did I say that out loud?), and even a little dash of Cindy Sheehan, had all started to come together to erode the President’s support.

It was almost as though people were slowly, one by one, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes to find that maybe the guy in the oval office may seem like a nice guy, but he’s just not that great at doing his job.

Then one of the nation’s most beloved and flamboyant cities was struck with disaster, and the vote of non-confidence in our federal administration only seemed to grow.

But a pretty consistent theme I’ve been hit with when talking to my more liberal friends is that the numbers don’t matter. Bush has already been reelected, and is going to do whatever he wants to do.

So now we are confronted with two major fallacies. The first being that the president doesn’t deserve all the criticism he has been receiving since the onset of the Katrina catastrophy, and the second being that his approval ratings just don’t matter. Both are false, and I will disprove them now.

The quick and easy one is the first. Of course the president deserves much of the criticism he is receiving. Further, if he is shocked by a good portion of it, he really shouldn’t be the president at all, or at least, he didn’t really understand the scope of the job when he started.

Now, everything leading up to Katrina’s devastating land fall; all the programs, systems, and plans already in place, all that stuff, is stuff that if you are going to blame Bush, you are also, if you’re gonna be fair, obliged to blame everyone who came before him for not fixing the same thing. So I give him a pass on that. I wouldn’t play the blame game on a president I liked, so I won’t do it to a president I don’t like.

But everything after the hurricane hit, oh you bet your sweet ass the president is open season for criticism. His actions, and the actions of those below him. That’s his job. On one hand, the fact that the man was seemingly posting a gaffe a day is horrendous. There was the “you’re doing a heck of a job Brownie,” comment. There were the countless stutter steps in public appearances. The announcement that no one expected the levees to fail a day after the report from the Army Corps of Engineers hit the media like a bomb as it predicted just that. And of course don’t forget how long it took for the President to make an on the ground assessment, and what you get when you tie everything together is a president that seemed very far removed from the disaster that was occurring right in his own backyard so to speak.

At a time when a president should appear cool, calm, strong, and knowledgable, ours seemed shaken, frustrated, uninformed, and impotent. Considering the fact that one of the president’s major responsibilities is to be a figure head, we can safely say that our president failed us here.

The other spot where the president must be held accountable is for the actions of his suboordinates. Any responsible CEO, or military person who has been in long enough to hold some measure of power should understand this. In a high executive office, such as that of the United States President, it is your job to be responsible for, though you have no control, of all the members under you. It would be unfair if you didn’t know this was part of your job, but I would hope that an incoming president, let alone a veteran two termer, would know this.

That is why one hopes to put into place people who are competent at their job. Unfortunately, in the case of the recently dismissed Brown, this was not exactly the case.

But there is something that really bothers me about what is going on in this national debate to criticize Bush; the fact that this is even a debate. If you want to debate the individual accusations or arguments, then that is fine, but the idea that there is ever a time when our public servants are beyond our criticism puts into danger the very fabric of our democracy. Those who govern should govern in fear of the governed. Anything less, and you take one more precarious step toward fascism. This is never more true than in the face of crisis, as it is this crucible which determines the validity of our leaders.

One falsehood down, one more to go. The idea that the president’s approval ratings are unimportant is silly. Of course the numbers matter, and if you don’t think they do, you’re not paying close enough attention.

If the only thing that the president had to worry about, in regards to his approval rating, was his reelection, then yes, you would be correct in saying that a President’s approval rating in his second term was worthless. But to that way of thinking, why even take the numbers? What’s the point in conducting countless polls? The fact that pollsters still bother to measure a president’s approval rating after his reelection would lead one to believe that there is still something important about them, and that one would be right.

A small sidebar. Other people have a tendency to discount polls because they are inaccurate. Case in point, I have a friend who says that all polls are bullshit because every poll he saw leading up to the last presidential election showed Kerry winning, and we know how that turned out. But of course, I would expect someone in that position to be dissappointed. At vote casting time, there are two things to think about. First, my friend was wrong, most polls had bush in the lead, and secondly, the spread on these polls were often within the allowances for error.

So no, polls are not exact, and if you are going to put money down on a 1 point difference when standard error is 3-5 points, well, a fool and his money…

But polls, though not exact, are still extremely useful in showing trends. For example, Bush was posting numbers in the high 80’s following the September 11th attacks. And one could, out of just purely anecdotal evidence say that that is a reasonable assessment of the national mood at the time. Hell, even such arch conservatives as Al Franken and Alan Colmes had in that post 9-11 era had praise for the President. Hell, even I liked the guy. The bullhorn on the rubble speech was masterful.

Compare that with today’s image of the guy, and you get the point.

Back off of that sidebar, and back to the main point. Polls-useful. Why? Well, other than letting you know whether or not you can get reelected, which is all moot in this case, there are several other reasons why you have to pay attention to how popular the president is. While he may be on his twilight tour, he still has a responsibility to get fellow party members elected and reelected into office. Also, there is the idea of a lasting legacy, the idea that he wants to push an agenda that will allow him to live on through legislation and policy that he champions. Finally we have the judicial nominations to worry about.

Clinton was, for much of his presidency, relatively popular, however, the Lewinsky scandal did much to destroy his ability to help get his VP, Al Gore, elected into office. Four years later when he joined Kerry on the campaign trail, he again was unable to give the new Democratic candidate the bump that he needed to win the oval office. Therefore, a scandal had prevented the eloquent and personable Clinton from becoming a political asset after his time in the White House had run out.

By contrast, it would be reasonable to assume that the charismatic Ronald Reagan had a hand in seeing his less than socially affluent vice president elected into the presidency.

As we look to the future, this recent history makes us ask the question of which two term president will George W. Bush take after? Also, with his numbers this low, what kind of movements can we see from the Republican party?

Our first indications of W’s ability to help out his party are rapidly approaching as midterm elections begin to draw near. Even now, we can see that Republicans are beginning to seperate themselves from El Presidente on a variety of issues. From his dangerous stance on Social Security to his fiscally irresponsible plan to economically recover from Katrina, more and more Republicans seem to be at least provisionally casting their own votes of no confidence in their leader.

Which is strange since the Bush style of political Kung Fu has been as good as gold in the elections since Katrina. As compassionate conservatism gets revealed to be neither compassionate, nor traditionally conservative to more and more Americans, the more we see this collective “the emperor really isn’t wearing any clothes” deal. And that doesn’t bode well for those who want to ride the coat tails of Bush and Rove.

From a more simplified standpoint, you’re thinking of running for an office. Do you want to count on the help of someone who is desperately clinging on to a 40% approval rating? If you do, please join the Republican party, and run for president. Please.

So unless Bush can pull out of his current political tailspin, you can rest assured that more and more Republicans are going to continue to seperate themselves from the Mayberry Machiavellis in an attempt to make themselves look better.

Even more unfortunately for the Bush camp, this means that his lasting legacy is also in danger. As he continues to refuse to ask for a collective national sacrifice to help ourselves out, we are treated to a stark image of his visionary ownership society. Shamanic, the writer for Simianbrain, has this most passionate must read on how the ownership society’s ugly unmentionables were made known to the public.

Social Security reform, torte reform, tax cuts, etc. are all highly dependent upon how popular the President himself is, and the effect is felt on both sides of the aisle. From the democratic side, opposition will be made easier because with a low approval rating for the president, appeals made directly to the public from external groups are likely to be less successful, thereby applying less pressure on Democratic congressmen to vote for agenda items.

On the Republican side of the aisle, you’ll find more and more Republicans less anxious to vote on Bush’s agenda items to protect their own political futures. As outlined earlier, if Bush’s numbers are high, you could pretty much count on Republicans staying lock step with the oval office. But as the president’s numbers aren’t very good, you will see more and more Republicans striking out on their own.

Freshman Republican Senator Coburn is perhaps the loudest harbinger of the old guard fiscal conservatism at the moment. Back in the 2004 campaign, Bush labeled Kerry just another “Tax and Spend” Democrat, a jibe that other conservatives willfully, hell, gleefully partook in. But now, as Coburn points out, Bush’s policy of “Spend, Spend, Spend” while initially more politically happy, has consequences, and the money has to come from somewhere.

And of course, who could forget Bill Frist’s break with the culture-of-lifers when he came out in favor of government funded Stem Cell Research?

Small as these breaks are, they’re still significant. They show cracks in the seemingly unbreachable GOP armor. Cracks that could only be propogated by a low presidential approval rating.

Finally, and here’s the biggie, judges. Judges judges judges. Since Bush first took the oval office, there has been a buzz about how conservatives could take the Supreme Court. It seemed highly likely that Bush would have the chance to name up to three SCOTUS justices, and considering his penchant for social conservatism, we’re talking about a possible overturning of Roe v Wade, a final word saying no gay people can’t get married, or hey, let’s get rid of some Affirmative Action.

Because despite what anyone says, both sides of the house want their own “activist judges”. When righties say things like “constructionists,” “constitutionalists,” etc. they may be saying they want someone that follows the letter of the law, but in truth, they’re licking their chops as they hungrily stare down that Roe v Wade decision.

But Bush got snubbed his first term in office. Despite there being some crusty old folks on the bench, none of them had the common courtesy to retire or shuffle off this mortal coil.

Then came this, his first year of his second term, and boom. Justice O’Connor retires, and before the nominee to replace her is even through committee, Chief Justice Rhenquist passes away. At this point, I want to slow the tape down a little bit.

When Justice O’Connor announced her retirement, we all had this idea that her replacement would be Judge Edith Brown Clement, a 5th circuit judge. Edith isn’t exactly the most liberal judge out there. I mean, to her, protecting the habitats of endangered species is unconstitutional, and minority rights? Who needs them. So what if an insurance agency charges black people more for the same identical plans offered to whites? Well call it the extra “colored folks” fee.

But at the last second, Bush pulled the rug right out from under all of our feet when he elected the handsome, mild mannered, Roberts. The idea, I’m convinced, was to nominate a softball with no real record to speak of, and therefore no seriously negative past to warrant a filibuster, and thereby soften up the field for a more conservative judge the next time around. A gambit that would work if Bush had the numbers to bolster his side of the story.

Check out this sidebar from the latest issue of Time magezine:

The Roberts Effect

As John Roberts sailed through his confirmation hearings, conservatives stepped up pressure on George W. Bush to choosehis next Supreme Court nominee more squarely in the strict-constructionist, Antonin Scalia mold. Another Roberts, according to conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, would be a “betrayal.” Why? Because Roberts left it unclear whether he would uphold Roe v. Wade, and Schlafly and others want a sure vote to reverse it.

Conservatives redoubled their opposition to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, seen by some as too squishy on abortion. “It’s really sad,” said a former associate White House counsel Brad Berenson, “that the conservative groups seem to have so little faith in the President and the Attorney Gerneal.” …

So what we are seeing is Bush being pulled in two directions. If his numbers had been there, I’m sure he could have pulled off a second nominee that would keep Schlafly very happy. But as they aren’t, he doesn’t have that huge bargaining chip called the American people to go to when he’s selling his nominee, so on one side, you have the Schlaflies demanding a super conservative judge, while the Arlen Specters are trying to tell George to keep things toned down.

Which brings us to the final question. We know that El Presidente’s poor numbers are going to severely inhibit his ability to help out fellow Republicans in elections, push for legislation that will solidify his legacy, and put into place SCOTUS justices that will ensure a severe conservative bias for years to come. What we don’t know is where does Bush think he himself stands? He doesn’t have the political capital he once had, or at least thought he had, but does he know this? I couldn’t tell you, but I do know that our biggest indicator is just around the corner. When he announces O’Connor’s replacement (again, for the under the rock people, Robert’s nomination got bumped up to Chief Justice when Rhenquist passed on), while the hard left and the hard right battle it out, as they will no matter who he picks, we’ll be able to see where Bush thinks he stands by who he picks. If he tosses out another Roberts, then we know he realizes that this early into his second term, his presidency is not doing so hot. If on the other hand he nominates Clement, or some other Scalia wannabe, then Bush has absolutely no clue what is going on around him politically, and I say heaven help him.

Scratch that, after five years of this guy, I say he deserves whatever he gets.

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