The Washington Times

I apologize for stating the obvious, but: It’s summer, folks. And summer has political consequences. The fact is that apart from the tiny minority of hard-core partisans and professional politics-watchers, Americans really don’t pay much attention to politics between the Fourth of July and Labor Day.

And indeed, why should they? The weather is mostly nice, and where it isn’t, it tends to be too hot, the solution to which is not a political argument or a cozy spot next to a warm cable news program, but air conditioning and a cold beer. The kids are around a lot, and whether you take that to be an occasion for family fun or a test of endurance, their presence tends to crowd politics out of a discussion, the preferred alternative being some form of potty humor. And, of course, people go on vacation, which at a minimum, disrupts one’s political habits, whatever they are. Which station carries Rush Limbaugh at Disney World? Or NPR? [Respectively, WFLA-540 AM, and WFME-90.7 FM.]

To all this, one must add that Americans are not hugely engaged with politics as a general proposition, except around elections, and even then, little more than half of those who are eligible typically turn out to vote for president, and generally only about a third turn out in an off-year.

Now, as it happens, I think it’s a bit unfair to take these percentages as a general indictment of Americans’ level of civic engagement. In the first place, they do tend to turn out in greater numbers when a local election is competitive, something incumbent politicians dread and have become quite good at avoiding. In the second place, Americans regard themselves as the genuine owners of their country, not their elected representatives or some unelected elite class. This is, I think, the real explanation underlying Americans’ conspicuous patriotism.

But what, then, should the politically obsessed do during the summer? Well, I think that last summer, the Bush White House offered one very plausible answer to this question: Do nothing.

Send the White House staff on vacation [or at least let them come to work late, say 7:30 a.m. instead of 6:30], send the president and the White House press corps to Crawford, Texas, and essentially make no great effort to interrupt people’s barbecues to try to drive a news agenda: Such I take the Bush White House’s approach to have been in 2002. I also think that the same approach was in play in summer 2001, but the September 11 attacks obscured its effect.

It’s remarkable, looking back, how much of a vacuum existed from late July through the end of August last summer, and how quickly it filled when the White House re-engaged after Labor Day. Now, if one wants to tune out in this fashion, one must accept what looks to be a difficult-to-avoid consequence: a drop in presidential job-approval ratings. In 2002, Mr. Bush’s rating dropped significantly, especially in the period from late June to the end of August in CBS News polls, from 70 percent to 61 percent. In 2003, we are also seeing an emerging decline, with Mr. Bush dropping from 68 percent to 59 percent in the ABC News/Washington Post poll. And in 2001, Mr. Bush came down as well, from 57 percent in the Gallup/USA Today/CNN poll down to 51 percent.

Now, in 2002, Mr. Bush had little trouble boosting his numbers in the fall [which in turn was important for Republicans in the November election]. Conventional wisdom is that Mr. Bush was adrift in summer 2001 and that September 11 saved him. I would like to point out that that proposition hasn’t really been tested. We don’t know what Mr. Bush might have done in the absence of the September 11 attacks, and he had enjoyed approval ratings as high as 65 percent or so in April 2001.

Which, in turn, points us to another generalization. In each case, Mr. Bush’s critics, as well as some neutral observers, have pointed to the summer declines as an indication that Mr. Bush’s approval was dropping to a new, permanently lower level. In summer 2001, the drop was often attributed to a lack of administration focus after passing its big tax cut. In summer 2002, it was the supposedly mounting uncertainty about the administration’s Iraq case finally taking the post-September 11 bounce out of Mr. Bush’s numbers. In summer 2003, it’s disenchantment with Iraq and the economy all over again.

Could be. But it could also be that the White House is leaving the field for the summer. We should know about that within a couple weeks. And by mid-September, we should know if the current decline indicates a genuine decrease in confidence in Mr. Bush or if it is simply a recurring seasonal effect.