"Seventy-seven percent." For weeks now, those three little words have served as the ultimate discussion stopper. A verbal knockout punch. A conversational coup de grâce. The final number as final word.
Whether offered up on TV talk shows or tossed across dining room tables, that magic number -- the president's robust postwar job approval rating -- has been as effective at quelling any disagreement with the Bush administration's selectively bellicose foreign policies or its suicidal tax cuts as a laser-guided bunker buster bomb.
Seventy-seven percent. It's Bush's flak jacket. A Kevlar stat that has cloaked him in an aura of invincibility. An aura that was only augmented by Operation Photo Op, his 2G tail-hook landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, floating just off the perilous coast of San Diego, and by the sight of his Democratic challengers squabbling amongst themselves in South Carolina -- desperately and pathetically trying to get the audience to picture them slipping into the role of dive-bombing top gun-in-chief. The idea being, I suppose, that it was all about the presidential flight suit, and not the man inside it.
Seventy-seven percent: The president is triumphant. Seventy-seven percent: The president can do no wrong. Seventy-seven percent: End of discussion. End of democratic debate.
Or so the president and his handlers fervently hope. Only it's not. It's just the beginning.
For starters, majorities can be -- and very, very often have been -- dead wrong. For instance, "Macarena" held the top spot on the Billboard singles chart for 14 straight weeks. Need I say more? And I'm not even pointing out to the president that a majority voted against him in the last election.
But let's put aside for the moment the ludicrousness of basing anything on increasingly inaccurate opinion polls (With their plummeting response rates, laughably small samplings and precision-flouting margins of error, these things are becoming less reliable than Rob on "Survivor: The Amazon") and take a closer look at the latest numbers. You'll see that the president isn't flying anywhere near as high as Karl Rove would like us to believe.
For one thing, in the latest Newsweek poll, the president's approval rating has already slumped to 65 percent -- a 12-point drop since the post-fall-of-Baghdad euphoria that goosed him to the much bandied-about double 7's. And even that figure pales in comparison to the 89-percent rating his father sported after the first Gulf War -- and Ol' 41 hadn't even toppled a single statue of Saddam, let alone an entire murderous regime.
When you break the numbers down further, you discover that the current President Bush is on even shakier electoral ground -- standing astride a partisan chasm that threatens to topple his own monuments. Following Desert Storm, both Republicans and Democrats felt good about the job George the Elder had done: he had a stratospheric 96-percent approval rating among his fellow Republicans and, even more importantly, an 80-percent rating among members of the opposition party, a spread of only 16 points. George the Junior, on the other hand, is facing a massive 51-point difference of opinion: Ninety-seven percent of his party members approve of his efforts, but less than half of Democrats -- 46 percent -- feel the same way.
Even after 9/11, Afghanistan, and the fall of Saddam, America is as polarized as it was during the days of dangling chads, scrubbed ballots, and endless recounts. And it's no accident: The administration's policies have sliced the body politic in two, and, as an added bonus, dramatically turned the majority of the civilized world against us.
So much for Bush's incessant campaign claims that he was going to be "a uniter not a divider."
The instability of the president's putative popularity becomes even more apparent when the subject of the polls is switched from the war in Iraq to the floundering economy here at home. Only 49 percent of Americans approve of Bush's handling of the economy, and more than half think that the president is not paying enough attention to the issue -- which is a big problem for the White House, since a majority of those polled cite the economy as their top concern. I'm sure Team Bush wishes the rest of us were paying as little attention to the economy as he is.
It's no wonder Rove is struggling so mightily to make 2004 about little more than picking a cockpit-ready commander in chief. But being president entails a lot more than making tail-hook landings and ordering last-minute bombing runs on restaurants and mosques where Saddam is purported to be hiding. It requires vision and leadership -- and the ability to come up with a way to deal with 6-percent national unemployment that doesn't include hammering Congress to pass yet another tax cut for the rich or repeating the word "jobs" close to three dozen times in a single speech, as the president did two weeks ago.
But even if you put all that aside and focus exclusively on the "endless war" the administration seems determined to wage -- or at least determined to campaign on -- the White House's reliance on polling seems destined to blow up in all of our faces.
Can you think of anything more preposterous -- and dangerous -- than determining matters of war and peace based on public opinion surveys? Yet all indications are that Bush and chief strategist Rove are chronic poll watchers and takers. A scary thought when you consider how consistently unreliable polls turn out to be.
Take the case of a Los Angeles Times poll conducted during the early days of the Iraq invasion. According to the survey, which was based on the responses of 745 people obviously lacking caller ID, 50 percent of Americans were in favor of expanding the fighting in the Middle East to include Iran if it continued to develop nuclear weapons. Pretty impressive. And utterly dubious. Just one week after the L.A. Times' headline-grabbing findings, a Gallup poll on the same subject came up with wildly contradictory results, determining that a whopping 69 percent of Americans opposed an invasion of Iran -- even if it was proven to be developing WMD or aiding terrorists.
So which was it? Were Americans gung-ho to take on Iran or did the thought send a shiver up our collective spine? And what if the Wolfowitzes of the world had used the first set of numbers to convince Karl Rove that launching a preemptive strike against Iran would be a good political move? Would the Gallup findings have then led the president to make an apologetic call to the ruling ayatollahs in Tehran: "Sorry, fellas, my bad. But that's polling for ya!"
It's bad enough taking a poll to determine if the public is in favor of requiring school kids to wear uniforms; it's downright Strangelovian to ask them if they are in favor of attacking a sovereign nation.
Even if your approval rating is 100 percent.