Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

What Is Dick Morris Trying To Do?

Dick Morris says that the President's circa-50-% poll numbers are really bad news for him: When an incumbent president is below 50 percent of the vote, he is in desperate trouble.

But he's not saying what the source of the "desperation" really is. It is true that at some points in an campaign it is very bad news for an incumbent to draw less than 50%. But not at this point, and not for an incumbent president. Most political experts would say that at this point in a presidential cycle the President's current readings don't have much predictive force - although higher is always better.

For example, at this point in the election cycle, President Reagan suffered poll ratings in roughly the 40% zone, and went on to a big win. In the last election cycle, Gray Davis and Mary Landrieu both hovered below the magic 50% mark - but their final elections weren't really that close. Mr. Davis beat his opponent, Bill Simon, by about 48 percent to 42 percent, which was a smaller margin than some had expected and allowed some media to call the race "narrow." But six percentage points is not "narrow" - and Mr. Davis was certainly never "desperate."

Dick Morris knows all that.

Mr. Morris also opines: The key to Bush's free-fall? Only 46 percent approve of his handling of postwar Iraq.

This is absurd. Mr. Bush has mostly suffered because the effects of the recovering economy have not yet yielded enough jobs, and people are anxious. Media coverage of the economy has emphasized the negative. A typical example is this USA Today article, which stresses that wage rises are under 4% - the "worst" in a long while. One has to read to the end to see:

The good news: Pay freezes are thawing, because employers are somewhat more optimistic the economy will turn around. The Hewitt study found only 2% of firms are expected to have a freeze next year, down from 8% in 2003. Raises are closer to 4% or higher in a number of major cities such as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington. Amounts can also vary within companies: In order to keep top performers, some companies are giving heftier raises, such as 5%, to stars, while giving nothing to the weakest. ...[O]verall compensation costs are climbing. Benefit costs rose 6.3% for the year ending June 2003.

If public perception of the economy turns around, Mr. Bush's poll ratings will rise. If those perceptions don't improve, he will be in big trouble. But the actual strong recovery of the economy is very recent. It is far to early to tell if the public will react well.

Mr. Morris's own assumptions work against his conclusions. Foreign policy considerations - which have also been reported in overly-gloomy fashion by a hostile media - will be a secondary consideration in the Presidential election - barring a major development like a new, big terrorist attack. Further, foreign policy perceptions are generally the most easilly affected by Presidential moves, such as the address to the United Nations. So if Mr. Bush's soft polls are caused by foreign developments as Mr. Morris insists, then those poll readings have even less meaning than such polls normally do at this point in the election cycle, and their normal predictive significance is not much.

Dick Morris knows all that.

So what the heck is he doing writing columns like this one?

I do agree with the other half of this column: Clark will not wear well.

UPDATE: I think that it is likely that Dick Morris is trying to get himself a job. For example, his focus on foreign policy considerations as the source of the President's poll problems includes the message that the President can "fix" his ratings by taking the "right" action in the foreign policy arena. That's something a President can do - unlike, say, reducing unemployment with a Presidential ukase. And it's something a president might hire Mr. Morris to help him do.

Actually, it's unlikely the President would formally hire Mr. Morris - who is really very astute generally nut has, shall we say, certain "personal issues." But the President might (in principle) use Mr. Morris' advice if someone else did the formal hiring and paying.

Dick Morris is largely about hidden agendas - that's often what people pay him for. It is not a criticism of him that he has one himself.

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