Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle built a little set for TV the other day to announce their utterly unsurprising verdict on President Bush's first 100 days. Thank God, they were just about the last to weigh in with a list of whiney complaints.
Not only was this 100-day bellwether a goofy idea, no one followed it, anyway. By Day 93, the network correspondents had taken their marks on the White House lawn to fill out their report card. Their quick take: Bush's poll numbers are better than Clinton's eight years ago, but let's be clear: it's not because people like his policies - like holding out for a bigger tax cut, or the way he's handling the Chinese. No, it must be because he's got a nice smile and people are happy if he can put two sentences together.
In his 100-days interview with the President, ABC's Charlie Gibson cut to the chase: our pollsters' finding of your 63 percent approval rating is nice, "yet less than half the people in the poll say that they approve of policies or feel that you understand their needs, which could be interpreted as saying, 'nice guy but we don't like his politics or his policies.'"
Gibson was taking the media's usual poetic license with polling data. The Washington Post story on this poll didn't report that people disagreed with Bush's policies. The pollsters deliberately prodded them into saying they thought that the tax cut would go to the wealthy (not that they want to forego their tax cut and stick it to the rich). They were also urged to prefer "protecting the environment" to new sources of oil and gas.
As for "understanding needs," this is what ABC/Washington Post pollsters asked: "Do you think Bush cares more about protecting the interests of ordinary working people or cares more about protecting the interests of large business corporations?" A better question might have been: "Who do you agree with more? President Bush or a group of divisive pollsters who never got over the Marxist game of putting 'real people' and cold, faceless caricatures of business in separate, warring camps?"
The data, in fact, contradict Gibson's interpretation. When they asked if Bush was too liberal, too conservative, or just about right ideologically, 31 percent said too conservative, but a whopping 62 percent said about right. Well, what a shock. Moderates and conservatives like his policies; liberals don't. When Gibson says Americans "don't like his politics or his policies" - guess which camp he's representing?
There's more to depress the major media stars in this poll. All their suggestions and backstage giggling that the President is a flustered frat boy manipulated like a marionette by Dick Cheney aren't sticking, either. When asked how confident they are in the President's "experience and ability to meet the challenges of the presidency," 63 percent are very or somewhat confident. Asked if he relies on his advisers too much, too little, or about right, only 20 percent say too much, while that whopping 62 percent again says he's doing things correctly.
The Day 100 verdict is in: despite all the Bush-bashing, the media are losing.
It's still early. There's still so much time for President Bush to morph into Dear Old Dad and calibrate himself into moderate mush. But the shape of the battle has very different and encouraging themes.
As opposed to the last Bush administration which desperately yearned for acceptance by the national press, this group is taking a page from the Reagan handbook - and ignoring them. By trying to scare the public against his "massive" tax cut and his "militant" rhetoric against communist bullies, the media are sounding increasingly like Gephardt and Daschle, whose political worldview never has been, or ever will be, acceptable to mainstream America. Their hysterical rhetoric is actually helping the new President.
Bush's tax cut may be too puny, and his apologies to China may have been a little too groveling for conservative tastes. But so far, he's sending the message that he's serious about honoring promises. As promised, real tax rate cuts are on the way. As promised, China no longer will be putting subway tokens in the White House gates to get a supine foreign policy. As promised, he is ending - at least at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - the politics of cynical opportunism, and replacing it with a commitment to the policy of decency in political discourse.
Before they land their next loaded poll, the networks ought to take a good look at their last numbers. Despite Charlie Gibson's fertile imagination, the public is saying something altogether different: We like this President, and we don't agree with you, or your friends Daschle and Gephardt. And we're not listening to you, either.