Thursday, December 20, 2007

Are pols slaves to public opinion?

Good point today from Josh Patashnik on The Plank:
There's a tendency on the part of some liberals to maintain, on the one hand, that Bush is unpopular because his right-wing ideology turns off most Americans, while insisting at the same time that Democrats can eschew centrism without suffering the same fate. It seems like you have to choose one or the other: either the median voter theorem has more to recommend it than Kuttner wants to believe, or Bush's conservatism isn't to blame for his unpopularity.
Well, look at it this way. Bush's opposition to SCHIP expansion is phenomenally unpopular, and yet it came at a time of an overall improvement of his approval rating. (Will it come back to bite Republicans at election time is another question.) It's clearly possible to take an unpopular position and not take a hit in public opinion polls. In some cases, if a pol is perceived as principled and authentic, an unpopular position can even help in the long term.

Further complicating the matter, effective political leaders can actually shape public opinion, as Matt Yglesias pointed out here.

But all those cases are exceptions to the general rule, which is that popular positions are popular because people like them, and they don't like unpopular positions. Someone like Robert Kuttner clearly believes voters would accept all of his particular political preferences if only a Democratic politician had the guts to adopt them. But it's rather odd to dismiss the role of public opinion in politics (!), and it's awfully insular thinking to assume that your own views are so self-evidently correct that everyone in America would obviously come around to them if given the chance. And using Bush as a case study only proves the point.

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