Joe Conason's Journal

Bush's sagging poll numbers. Plus: Jeb panders to the evangelicals.

By Salon Staff

Published October 28, 2002 1:00PM (EST)

Bad numbers
Buried in a paragraph on page A4 of last Friday's Wall Street Journal (unfortunately the Journal's Website is only available to subscribers) was an important point I've made since last spring (to the annoyance of every Republican within earshot). As the Republicans nationalize the midterm with the "wartime president" rambling around in nonstop campaign mode, it bears reiteration today: George W. Bush's favorable job ratings don't reflect any burning desire among voters to award him a second term. In fact, he remains well below 50 percent in that latter category, where he has been marooned for months.

The latest NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll shows that although his performance ratings are just above 60 percent, only 45 percent say that they will "probably" vote for Bush in 2004. "Nearly half either say they'll likely back a Democrat, or that their choice 'depends' on Bush's rival." (If you think this question is irrelevant, please explain why pollsters across the spectrum spend thousands of dollars retrieving the answer.)

Democratic pollster Peter Hart and his Republican colleague Bob Teeter agree that if the presidential election were held now, Bush "could face as competitive a race as the one he faced in 2000." Meanwhile, as we enter the last week of this campaign, public opinion about the president's handling of the economy is fast souring. At the White House they're in trouble and they know it.

Rendering unto Jeb
That trouble includes the possible return of "little brother" to the private sector next January. Jeb Bush has been out trolling for votes amongst the fundamentalists. He tells the Christian Coalition pamphleteers that Jesus is his "personal saviour," and they tell the gullible that the governor is a "real Christian," as if the Almighty had personally informed them that McBride is an infidel. But what the right-wing activists neglected to explain as they handed out their Florida voter guides is how Jesus would have regarded a Tallahassee Caesar with a bogus "blind trust," a dubious sibling hawking "educational" software, and strangely convenient relationships with big campaign donors like the company putting up an environmentally unsound cement plant near a sensitive, beloved river. Or are all those issues outside the realm of Pat Robertson's golden-calf theology?
[2:44 p.m. PDT, Oct. 28, 2002]

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Thoroughly modern Minnesotan
A few additional thoughts about Paul Wellstone: As eulogies bloom everywhere, including the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, the misuse of his legacy has already begun. The late senator is being falsely portrayed -- in a manner that I'm certain he would have rejected -- as perhaps the only "honest liberal" in Washington.

Surely the personal tributes by the likes of Fred Barnes are heartfelt. Yet there's something awfully tacky about turning an appreciation of Wellstone into an opportunistic trashing of his Democratic colleagues -- from Ted Kennedy, who was campaigning with him the day he died, to Pat Leahy, who broke down in tears as he talked about the plane crash, to Barbara Boxer, Dick Durbin, Jon Corzine, Russ Feingold, John Kerry, Patti Murray and, for that matter, even that consummate neoconman Joe Lieberman, who flew out to Minnesota to support him last week.

Yes, Wellstone often disagreed on trade and welfare issues with "New Democrats" like Lieberman and the Clintons. But he had worked closely with all of his fellow caucus members on major issues such as campaign finance reform and the protection of the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve. Yes, he found ways to deal with the Republicans, including Jesse Helms, because that is what pragmatism demanded in a closely divided Senate and because his sunny nature enabled him to do so. But he also understood the overriding importance of what he held in common with even the most moderate Democrats (which was one of the reasons he resisted the Naderite diversion in 2000).

I must add that I made my own mistake in writing about Wellstone last Friday. My epiphany came while listening to Tucker Carlson (whose main impression of the late senator seems to have been that he was short, and accepted his lack of height with good humor) describe the senator's politics as "anachronistic," a term I also used. The "Crossfire "host is wrong about that, and so was I.

Whatever his flaws, Wellstone was considerably more progressive and forward-looking than the truly anachronistic elements in American politics  meaning those who prefer '50s sex roles, closeted gays, creationism and prayer in the schoolhouse, an underclass with no social safety net, industries unfettered by environmental regulation, blacks and other minorities unprotected by civil rights laws, and a gunboat foreign policy that exalts weapons over human rights and diplomacy. It is the hard right that wants to return to the bad old days, though its backwardness is often dressed up as the latest Washington fad. Always standing in their way for the past decade was Wellstone, modern American and son of the '60s, with a defiant smile on his face.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune has provided superb coverage of his career and the tragedy that deprived us of him.

On the Fritz
From one side of Republican mouths, nice words about Wellstone; from the other side, lies about the man most likely to take up his banner, former Vice President Walter Mondale. An excellent antidote to the latest sickening spin can be found at Liberal Oasis.
[7:57 a.m. PDT, Oct. 28, 2002]

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