The turning tide

Posted: Dec 06, 2004 12:00 AM

Just a month after the election, the tide of opinion has turned. Consumer confidence is up. The stock market is up. The percentage of Americans who feel the nation is headed in the right direction is up. And George W. Bush's job approval rating is up. The average of polls conducted just before the election showed Bush with 49 percent approval and 47 percent disapproval. Its average of polls taken after the election shows Bush with 53 percent approval and 43 percent disapproval.

 These changes are striking because Bush's numbers, and the numbers on the economy, remained relatively constant for months and months before the election. Now, they have changed. One likely reason: Partisan Democrats are now no longer registering their opposition to Bush, but rather their response to events. Poll-watchers know that Democrats rated the economy very negatively throughout the 2004 election cycle, just as Republicans rated the economy very negatively throughout the 2000 election cycle -- even though the economic numbers in both cases were quite positive. These partisans were just voicing their opposition to George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively. But now that Bush has been re-elected, their responses correspond more closely to the economic facts on the ground.

 It looks like Bush is headed toward the bright sunlit upland of public approval that Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan enjoyed in the first two years of their second terms. Most likely, Bush's approval ratings will not be as high as Clinton's and Reagan's, because this electorate remains deeply polarized. But there is an impulse in many Americans to voice approval of a re-elected president and to grant him more benefit of the doubt than during the election period. Particularly during a campaign in which he was so vociferously and witheringly opposed not only by the opposition party, but by the dominant voices of Old Media, led by CBS News and The New York Times.

 The shrillness of that opposition, in retrospect, did not serve John Kerry or the Democrats well. The vitriolic anti-Bush ads run for seven months by the billionaire-funded 527 organizations do not seem to have converted any undecided voters and may well have steeled the determination of Bush admirers out there -- largely ignored and uncovered by Old Media -- to get out and vote for Bush and persuade others to do so. The number of votes cast for Bush in 2004 was 20 percent higher than in 2000. That's an extraordinary rise for a president running for re-election in what seemed not to be a time of peace and prosperity.

  Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis has written that Bush has transformed American foreign policy, in response to the serious threat of Islamist terrorism, more than any other president since Harry Truman transformed American foreign policy in response to the serious threat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Gaddis, no Bush acolyte, regards Bush's transformation as a serious enterprise, worthy of serious study. Not many Democrats in election year 2004 took the same approach.

 This is a vivid contrast to the response to Truman's transformation. Then, the chief political opposition, Thomas Dewey's Republicans, actively supported Truman's policy changes and confined their opposition to domestic issues. Truman's allies in the Democratic Party, as Peter Beinart notes in a brilliant article in The New Republic, took the communist threat seriously. They formed Americans for Democratic Action and took steps to expel those who didn't take the Soviet threat seriously from the Democratic Party and major labor unions.

 Some contemporary Democrats have followed these examples. But most have not. Democrats embraced Michael Moore -- about half the Democratic senators attended his movie premiere in Washington -- who has written that "Americans are the stupidest people in the world." Democrats have been happy to make common cause with, as Beinart points out,, which opposed the war in Afghanistan and joined demonstrations run by an organization that supports the dictatorship in North Korea. These Democrats, Beinart argues, have not taken seriously the threat of Islamist terrorism and have subordinated it to their hatred of Bush.

 Politically, that proved to be a losing course on Nov. 2. It does not seem likely to be more of a winner in the more optimistic and pro-Bush opinion climate that has become apparent since John Kerry's handsome concession speech. There are many calls for Bush to pursue bipartisan policies. Perhaps the Democrats should be called on to emulate the bipartisanship of the Dewey Republicans and the alertness to foreign threats of the ADA liberals in the early years of the Cold War.