Tidbits for Political Junkies with Short Attention Spans & Hearty Appetites


Sunday, May 30, 2004


Bush, the Environment, and “Governing by Polls”

It takes a library …to describe the damage Bush is doing to the environment.

In the June 10 issue of The New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben tackles this pentagon report, plus nine recent books, calling the Bush policy “institutionalized corruption: a steady payback to the logging, mining, corporate farming, fossil fuel, and other industries that contributed heavily to put Bush in power:”
The scale of this assault on the environment is so large as to be numbing. With a hundred battles occurring simultaneously and without a majority in either chamber of Congress to hold hearings or issue subpoenas, the environmental movement has been almost paralyzed. In Congress and the administration, loss has followed loss in such steady succession that even the most conventional environmentalists, usually bipartisan to a fault and reluctant to jump into electoral politics, now find themselves with a single goal: defeating Bush in November.

There is much of interest in the article, but what caught my attention were a few tangential, but highly illuminating, tidbits concerning Bush’s use of polls. Specifically, the comments illustrate how Bush relies on poll data to frame policies that might otherwise encounter considerable resistance. For example, it was Bush's pollster, Frank Luntz, who created the phrase “Healthy Forests Initiative”-- to describe a bill that others have described less charitably as the “No Tree Left Behind Act.” The same pollster also christened the “Clear Skies” bill -- the most brazen cave to mercury and sulfur polluters in recent memory. And there’s more:

Luntz told Bush to stop using the phrase "global warming" (in a leaked memo, he stressed that "while 'global warming' has catastrophic connotations attached to it, 'climate change' sounds a more controllable and less emotional challenge") and to emphasize the (false) statement that there is no consensus among scientists on the issue. "Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly," Luntz wrote. "The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed."

These clever bits of framing, in turn, may allow Bush to believe he’s actually being truthful when he says that he doesn’t “govern by polls” -- at least from the perspective of what Peter Singer (in The President of Good & Evil) describes as Bush’s “arrested moral development:” a “childishly literal notion of what it is to be truthful.”

After all, it’s not the policy that’s being adjusted to respond to the polls, it’s merely the words that are being adjusted to tailor the spin to the political reality. All so Bush can go on governing as he damn well pleases.

It wouldn’t surprise me, in fact, to learn that the very phrase – “We don’t govern by polls” – is itself poll-tested. At the very least, it’s true to form: deeply misleading, without being literally untrue.


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