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Policy Trumps Scandal

This column was written by William Kristol.
A week ago we suggested in this space that a beleaguered President Bush was "poised to rebound by getting back to basics, and getting back to a core, winning agenda." Sure enough, USA Today reported a week later that Bush's poll ratings had rebounded to 45 percent approval/50 percent disapproval from a low earlier in the month of 40 percent approval/58 percent disapproval.

I know, I know. Correlation is not causation. It is a fallacy to claim post hoc ergo propter hoc. And so forth. The Weekly Standard won't try to take credit for the president's 5-point bounce. Still, it is startling that during a period in which headlines featured the stock sale of GOP Senate leader Bill Frist, the indictment of GOP House leader Tom DeLay, the CIA-leak testimony of Judith Miller, and the arrest by the FBI of Jack Abramoff-Grover Norquist associate and White House official David Safavian, the president seems to have done fine. What lessons are to be drawn from that?

Not, we hasten to add, that sleaze is good. It isn't. Not that there aren't real problems with the ethics and the policies of some of those associated with the Republican majorities on the Hill or the Bush administration. There are. And not that Republicans and conservatives shouldn't be worried about the reality, and the perception, of a "culture of corruption." They should be.

But the poll numbers do remind us that while "corruption" matters, it doesn't necessarily trump all. The media love scandal stories, but citizens put them in perspective. The citizenry tends to reserve judgment on charges and accusations about which they don't yet know all or even most of the facts. Sensible people don't leap to generalize from a few cases about a whole administration or an entire political party. And they tend to care more about substantive policies and real-world results than they do about alleged sleaze or even corruption. As John J. DiIulio Jr. put it (in a somewhat different context) in his contribution to our tenth anniversary symposium, "policy matters most."

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What about the 1994 Republican electoral victory? Wasn't that campaign, which resulted in the biggest electoral swing in a generation, about the corruption of the Democratic Congress? Actually, no. Jim Wright and Tony Coelho were forced to resign in 1989 — and had been long replaced and forgotten by 1994. The House banking scandal broke in 1991, and was an issue in the 1992 elections — but not 1994.

In fact, the 1994 campaign was about policy — and ideology. It was about replacing big government liberalism with a conservatism reformist in its policies and traditional in its values. It was about the failed Clinton health care plan, the tax hikes, and gun control measures passed by the Democratic Congress over GOP opposition, about Clinton/Democratic moments like gays in the military and Joycelyn Elders on sex and Lani Guinier on race, about fecklessness abroad in Somalia and Haiti. The 1994 campaign was the most ideological in the last two decades. The next most ideological, in fact, was probably 2004.

And in both of these campaigns Republicans did well. Guess what? There is a natural more-or-less conservative majority in the country for economic growth/strength abroad/socially conservative policies, and, conversely, there is quite a lot of hostility to liberal activist judges, high taxes, and American weakness. Obviously, elected officials should pursue the policies they think right, regardless of possible electoral implications in the future — and, even more obviously, regardless of week-to-week poll results. But insofar as electoral considerations can't help but intrude, the president and Republicans should take heart. Bush rebounded, despite the "culture of corruption" story line being pushed by the Democrats and the media, over the last ten days. He did so because of the John Roberts debate and victory, because of sound and energetic leadership of the executive branch vis-à-vis hurricane Rita, and in a climate of repeated expressions of determination to stay the course in Iraq, as well as because of some openness to GOP congressional calls for spending restraint and for extending the tax cuts.

The next three months will be key for Iraq, important for budget and tax policy, and crucial to the future of constitutional law. If the Bush administration gets those right and doesn't lose its nerve, all the rest shouldn't matter too much.

By William Kristol
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