A POLL WORTH GOVERNING BY
by Jules Crittenden
Congressmen of both parties smell President Bush's blood in the water and the public's despair in the air. Headlines crow that even Republicans are distancing themselves from Bush and his terrible war.
They are political animals. They see what is happening in the polls, and they are looking to their own futures beyond this ugly war and this unpopular lame-duck presidency.
But there is a problem with acting on polls, as seductive as pandering to popular opinion can be. It is a painfully simple problem.
Polls are a measure of opinion, not fact. Polls change. They can change fast. And they don't always reflect people's true desires as much as they reflect their reactions.
For example, the polls ... and more importantly the headlines about polls ... tell us that as many as 60 percent of Americans oppose sending more troops to Iraq. Only 35 percent support it. Those polls mirror the dissatisfaction with Bush himself.
Buried are poll results such as the one Fox News turned up last week. Toward the bottom of even Fox's own report:
"63 percent of Americans say they want the plan to succeed, including 79 percent of Republicans, 63 percent of independents and 51 percent of Democrats."
The percentage of people who think it might succeed, 49. The percent who think it probably won't, 52.
People have been hit with a relentless drumbeat of bad news about Iraq and the widespread insistence that Iraq is an intractable problem, that the Arabs have always been killing each other and always will. Both assumptions are as true as the notions that Northern Ireland is an intractable problem, and that Catholics and Protestant have always killed each other and always will.
But if the majority of Americans wants us out of an intractable mess, the majority also would rather see us sort it out, if it is at all possible, and a lot of them think it is. That suggests Americans are waiting for signs of success, but presented only with reasons to despair, have agreed to do so.
The good news is, the signs of success are showing up fast. The mere suggestion of a serious crackdown has prompted its targets to run for cover. Moqtada al-Sadr is angling to get back into the political process. His Shiite militias men have hidden their weapons and are trying to act normal. Sunni insurgents are reportedly hightailing it to Diyala. Iran has signalled it wants positive engagement and negotiations, and is trying to look like a friendly neighbor to Iraq.
Those are only preliminary and temporary developments. But they represent a vote of confidence in the Bush plan from its target. The enemy has shown fear. The enemy does not want us to attack.
As Gen. Petraeus takes command and the new strategy is implemented in force, the majority of American people who long for success may begin to see it and support it.
James Baker, whose Iraq Study Group produced a series of truly bad ideas in December -- a hasty withdrawal schedule and talks from a position of weakness with the very nations trying to force us out of Iraq -- Tuesday said something very wise.
He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee it made no sense to approve Gen. Petraeus's appointment to command in Iraq while undercutting him with resolutions in defiance of his mission. And Baker, whose plan for Iraq has been largely pushed aside by the president, showed himself to be a big man with a sense of history and propriety when he told the senators they should give the president's plan a chance to succeed.
Because if our elected leaders want to satisfy the masses and govern by poll, then they should aspire to satisfy the deep desire most Americans will state when asked. That's the one that cuts sharply across measures of skepticism and despair. It is the poll result that says Americans want to win.
Jules Crittenden is an editor and columnist for the Boston Herald.
Crittenden's web page is at Forward Movement.
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