The Washington Times
Oh dear, it happened again: By late fall, Democrats had talked themselves into the proposition that the Bush administration was, for all practical purposes, over and done with. A few scant weeks later, in fact just in time for Christmas, Mr. Bush was back, with a respectable and rising job-approval rating and momentum in the news cycle.
By now, this phenomenon has repeated itself sufficiently to warrant a generic analysis. So, here goes.
Consider late summer 2003 (on the eve of Mr. Bush’s pressing the case for the Iraq war), spring 2004 (with the emergence of the Democratic presidential nominee), election day 2004, and fall 2005. In all these instances, Mr. Bush’s standing in the polls was softening or worse. Moreover, the Democratic opposition seemed to be effective in landing political blows on the president, and the Bush White House seemed generally inadequate in its response.
In late summer 2003, the question was whether the administration was in a rush to go to war in Iraq without congressional approval and without international participation. In spring 2004, John Kerry was putting together a string of impressive victories in the Democratic primary and leading Mr. Bush handily in polls anticipating the November matchup. On election day 2004, early exit-poll “data” pointed to a huge Kerry upset over Mr. Bush. And in fall 2005, Mr. Bush’s job approval fell to its all-time low in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and uncertainty in Iraq.
So, in all these cases, we have an “objective correlative”: a reason for Democrats to think they were making headway. Mr. Bush had problems. It was no delusion on the part of Democrats to think so.
Nevertheless, delusion set in: It was that the problems Mr. Bush was suffering were irremediable. He was down and on the way out, and that was that. Public opinion in general had at last aligned itself with the view of Mr. Bush his partisan critics shared.
Where did this delusion come from? Well, the first and obvious answer is the failure to understand that politics is characterized by ebb and flow. There is no such thing as a state of permanent equilibrium. I am not making a metaphysical point about “cycles,” but rather simply noting that politicians, parties and institutions respond to changing circumstances. They do so in an effort to improve their position. Whether or not they succeed depends on how well they understand the circumstances in which they find themselves and how effectively they craft and execute a response. But they almost always try.
Candidates do indeed throw in the towel when they realize they have lost an election (well, most of the time). Officeholders and political parties, however, do not respond to being down by declaring themselves to be out. They fight back. In the case of all the Bush examples, Democrats reasoned from Bush administration ineffectuality rooted in a certain time and certain circumstances to conclude that Mr. Bush could never be effective again.
Second, fond as Democrats are of the view that Mr. Bush lives in a bubble, they miss the point that they live in a bubble. In fact, we all live in bubbles. The question is whether we understand that fact and seek to pop them, for the sake of understanding what’s really going on, or whether we just continue to self-select for good news.
If Mr. Bush’s bubble is a close and loyal staff, the Democrats’ bubble is the media culture to which they look for descriptions of political reality. Their main problem is that they don’t understand the way the bubble acts as an echo chamber, repeating their preferred interpretation of what’s going on back to them.
Nowhere was that clearer than on election day 2004. Democrats had been promising a new army of voters at the polls to propel John Kerry to victory, and when the early exit polls indicated a huge Kerry win, that’s what they thought they were seeing. Never mind that a such a phenomenon, utterly invisible as it was in polls on the eve of the election, would have been unprecedented. Democrats saw confirmation of the expectations they themselves had created. And they celebrated accordingly – albeit briefly.
Third, there is the matter of the calendar. Pollsters begin the question: “If the election were held today, …” But the election is not today. The next congressional election will arrive on schedule in November 2006 and would not under any circumstances have taken place in November 2005. Mr. Bush was not running against Mr. Kerry in an election in spring 2004. And Mr. Bush will be president of the United States for three more years.
Now, Mr. Bush’s job approval rating in fall 2005 certainly mattered, as it matters now, to his ability to accomplish his objectives. But he was running for reelection in November 2004, and he will seek to defend his party’s majorities in November 2006. He has and will take action in those circumstances that he is not taking now, and this matters.