The Washington Times

Does politics still have a slow season? If so, the Fourth of July weekend marks its official beginning. According to conventional wisdom, even in an election year, summer is no time to try to drive a political message. People aren’t interested. But does that old conventional wisdom adequately take into account the intensity of feeling this year? That’s the proposition we are likely to test this summer.

In the usual reckoning, campaigning is mainly a post-Labor Day phenomenon. This is not to say that candidates usually just disappear for the summer. But the perception is that people are too preoccupied with barbecues, family vacations, the Olympics, golf and other seasonal rituals to pay heed to the national political scene.

People simply tune out politics for a while, knowing they will have ample opportunity to pick it up later – in fact, especially in a presidential election year, that the political world will be inserting itself into their consciousness by main strength come the fall, in the form of a ceaseless barrage of political advertising and news from the campaign trail. The result isn’t so much that people reset their dials for each candidate to zero over the summer, but rather that the impression people had going into the summer season essentially gets frozen in place. Approval ratings and such may drift a bit over the summer and the movement may even show a trend, but the changes are very ephemeral, subject to reversal once people begin to pay serious attention again.

President Bush has seen his approval ratings decline each of the three summers he has been in office, and it looks like such a trend may be shaping up in 2004 as well. In 2001, Mr. Bush had passed his big tax cut, and the question on everyone’s mind was what exactly he had planned for the rest of his term. As of August, the answer was not obvious. With September 11 came a broad reorientation of priorities and a huge jump in his support. But it would be wrong to assume that the administration was saved from drift and eventual torpor only by the war on terror. The essential fact about that summer was that administration gurus made no real attempt to drive a news agenda. But they certainly had every intention of starting to try to drive it in the fall.

By August 2002, Mr. Bush was once again drifting downward, this time as a result of the increasingly vocal opposition to the possibility of war with Iraq. Here, it seemed that the White House was leaving the field to its opponents, letting them fire away without answering. But come the fall, Mr. Bush stepped out with a major push for support at the United Nations and from Congress, scoring political victories in both venues and reversing his slide.

The summer of 2003 was marked by the gradually dawning awareness that the aftermath of the war in Iraq was by no means going to be as easy as some in the administration hoped, nor was swift justification for the war in terms of the discovery of large caches of chemical and biological weapons going to be forthcoming. Once again, in the fall, Mr. Bush stepped up – but this time less adroitly than on previous occasions. He effectively reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to rebuilding Iraq, but he made the political mistake of announcing, in person on national television, the $87 billion price tag.

No doubt, the figure was meant to convey how seriously committed the administration was. In fact, it reminded Americans of how little they like to spend money abroad. It made a huge impression; $87 billion is a figure pollsters say an extraordinarily high percentage of Americans spontaneously recall, and not with pleasure. It’s doubtful, given the mounting insurrection, that Mr. Bush would have avoided a downdraft over the past year. But he failed to undo the summer doldrums with a strong fall re-emergence. That’s not to say, however, that the summer impressions were more firmly formed than usual, only that the effort to dispel them failed.

What about this year? Well, we have the Democratic convention in the middle of summer and the usually exciting moment of the announcement of the vice presidential nominee. We also have what everyone agrees is an unusually fired-up Democratic electoral base. Does that mean this summer will be different?

Could be, but I doubt it. The fact is that there are just about the same number of newspaper and magazine pages and cable news minutes to fill over the summer, whether anyone other than political junkies is paying attention or not. Those who are will be operating in an echo chamber, where the voices they hear will be the unrepresentative impressions of their fellow political junkies. The result, in this year as in previous years, is likely to be an overvaluing of the significance of the summer movement.

Of course, I will be following the polls with as much interest as anyone. But I’m still betting that the real action won’t be coming until fall.