Jewish World Review April 10, 2002 / 29 Nisan, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Last week, Washington insiders criticized what they called Bush's hypocracy in using polls as president while he claimed to spurn them as a candidate.
These cries of indignation beg the basic question: what's wrong with polling, anyway?
This is a democracy. Policy flows from a conversation between a leader's ideas and the voters' opinions. As Henry Kissinger said "if (a leader) gets too far ahead of his people, he will lose his mandate; if he confines himself to the conventional he will lose control over events." Polling is how a leader gauges the relationship between his goals and the public's tolerance.
A leader in a democracy can no more ignore public opinion than a sailor can disregard tides and winds. The wise leader sets an objective based on his own convictions about where the country must go. But, using polls, he measures how much of his vision is congruent with the ideas of his constituency. His job is to sail as close to the wind as possible without capsizing. But, inevitably, he must tack - sail a little to the right or the left of his goal as the wind moves him. Then, also using polls, he tacks back and forth until he arrives at his destination.
For example, Bill Clinton arrived in office determined to eliminate the deficit. In his first two years he encountered a Congress and a nation bent on governmental activism in the face of recession. So he raised taxes. Then, the wind shifted, and the country wanted less government, so he cut spending. He arrived at his goal - a balanced budget - but he tacked, first to the left and then to the right to achieve it.
In wartime, polling is particularly essential. America won World War II, Korea, and the Gulf War because domestic public opinion understood the need to fight and supported the president as he waged war.
Vietnam was a war fought in defiance of public opinion. While early surveys showed reflexive support for the war, it became clear that Americans were simply not prepared to accept the level of casualties the kind of war Johnson and Nixon had in mind would generate. When the war news seemed to turn bad in early 1968 as the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched a massive offensive on the Tet holiday, public opinion began to reject the war - despite largely accurate claims that the offensive had turned out badly for our enemies. We did not lose on the battlefields of Vietnam but in the war for public support at home. Every war in a democracy must be waged on both fronts. Intelligence about the willingness of the citizenry to see their children put at risk is every bit as important as that which measures enemy intentions and capabilities.
A president who does not poll and fails to grasp what the public expects of him, is as flawed a leader as the one who asks only what the people want and provides no leadership at all. Bush will win the war on terror, in part, because he will use polling to speak to his nation's concerns and fears as he leads it on an uncharted path.
What were FDR's famous political instincts, Woodrow Wilson's ability to read the national mood, or Lincoln's capacity to sense what the country was ready for but polling in another form? Does the fact that these three presidents did not have scientific survey sampling available to gauge public opinion but had to rely on their gut instinct make their reading of the public mind any more virtuous than that of the modern president? They used carbon paper. We use zerox. They sent documents by post. We e-mail them. They canvassed political leaders and newspaper editors around the nation to gauge public sentiment. We conduct polls. What's the difference?
President Bush needs to know whether Americans will tolerate casualties
to topple Saddam Hussein (they will). He must calculate the right mix of
heightened national vigilance and alertness but not cause panic in the
process. He needs to understand what restrictions on their liberty people
will accept to root out terrorists in our midst. Should he use smoke
signals instead to divine the answers? Or should he use modern, scientific
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