Rob Knight

Governing with polls

March 04, 2005

I remember Bush saying during the campaign last year that we needed a leader who didn’t govern through polls–the idea being that a president should not lead based on public opinion. Now, I would love to assume that Bush himself is not a leader who governs by the polls, but the evidence–as is usually the case with this administration–contradicts both positions.

First, you have the dreaded word privatization. The word that makes Karl Rove wet himself. As recently as a year ago, if Bush was talking about Social Security, he would use the word “privatization” to discuss his goals for reform. As it turned out, “privatization” didn’t poll well among Americans who like Social Security. So then came “private accounts.” But wouldn’t you know it, that sucked too. So now we’re stuck with “personal savings accounts.” And when polls show that any word that starts with the letter “P” turns people off to Social Security phase-out, I’m sure we’ll have to deal with “Freedom of Choice accounts.” Or just “Freedom accounts” or running with the current reason for invading Iraq, “Liberty & Freedom accounts.” Either way, it is clear that Bush’s language on Social Security phase-out has been driven entirely by polls.

Guilty as charged, right? Wrong.

The problem is not that Bush is governing by the polls. The problem is that he is trying to govern by the wrong polls. Rather than focus on the most easily digestible words to use, Bush could learn more by focusing on whether anyone likes his proposals. Most polled Americans do not support his proposals for Social Security phase-out. Not only do we not like the word “private,” we don’t like the theory either. Because Social Security is not in crisis, and it isn’t going bankrupt. Coincidentally, those words don’t poll well either, and have thus been dropped from the suitable language rules.

This begs the question, if the polls show that Americans don’t support Social Security phase-out, why isn’t Bush governing by the polls. Simple. This isn’t about saving Social Security, its about dismantling it. It is the culmination of 25 years of right-wing attacks on Social Security. This president–and by extension, the right-wing of the Republican Party–stands on new ground with unprecedented right-wing control of the legislative process. If you think he’s just going to govern by the polls, think again.