There’s an episode of The West Wing that I saw on Bravo a couple of weeks ago and have been thinking about since. It involved a scene where one of the staff is talking to President Bartlett about an upcoming State of the Union speech. The speech is going to include something about federal grants to provide cell phones to neighborhood watch groups. It’ll include that because it polls very well, and because the President is in political peril and needs a great State of the Union address to stay afloat. It was a reminder of the pettiness of mid-1990s politics, but also a reflection of the fact that the Bartlett administration, like the Clinton administration, and like many other politicians, had a certain imagine in its head of how politics worked. In this image, the public is full of people with all kinds of opinions. And if you ask them questions, you could discern their opinions. And if you identify things that public opinion favors, and that you also deem defensible policy goals, and then go do these things, the public’s opinion of you will go up. And that’s how politics works!
Except the evidence suggests that that isn’t actually how politics works. The evidence is that public opinion is largely incoherent, that voters do much more rationalizing than reasoning, and that people have little information about what politicians are doing or saying anyway. What matters for political sense is a few big, crude factors. And the Bush administration, whatever you say about them, seems to me to have basically understood this. There was a lot of sentiment in December 2000 and January 2001 that the weird nature of Bush’s accession to the presidency meant that he not only would but had to basically ditch his governing agenda in favor of a more centrist posture. The Bushies correctly ascertained that whether or not he succeeded in getting bipartisan glamor shots three and a half years earlier was going to have nothing to do with his re-election prospects. They saw that a President has certain powers to shape policy, that the vast majority of policy decisions have no impact whatsoever on voter behavior, and that the best thing you can do is just press ahead with what you think is best.
Unfortunately for the world, George W. Bush’s ideas about what’s best are stupid and morally deficient. And that, of course, completely vitiates whatever virtues his methods may have had.