Monday, February 09, 2004
Why art thou disquieted in me?
Still, it's worth asking what happened.
Josh Micah Marshall pushes a theory in today's Talking Points Memo. He points out that, "President Bush's fall in the polls coincides very closely with David Kay's initial comments stating that there almost certainly were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
To which he and I both say, "good."
But I certainly didn't expect it to happen. In fact, if you scroll back through the Zwichenzug archives you'll find four or five posts expressing near panic as I watched the Bush Administration employ what looked to me like a planned strategy for dealing with what I thought was an inevitable admission.
Things only began to crack last Thursday when Tenet broke ranks and Kay subsequently allowed that any inquiry into intelligence failures should include an examination of the White House's use of intelligence. Kay is looking a lot more independent, and it's looking a lot less like there's a master plan.
I'm not the only one who misread events. Josh Marshall didn't expect Bush's poll numbers to plummet and admits that he, "focused on the parts of Kay's comments and testimony which struck me as attempting to exonerate the administration."
So what happened? Again, Marshall has a theory. He points out that, "To those who've been closely following the on-going weapons search and what's been happening on the ground in Iraq, Kay's announcement was only news at the level of theatrics -- the historical value of the official statement of what's been obvious for many months." But because the announcement wasn't real information for us, Marshall's theory goes, we underestimated the effect the news would have on the majority of the electorate that still believed in WMDs.
I think this is on the right track, but falls somewhat short. The conventional wisdom, as Marshall notes, was that, "most voters weren't overly troubled by the failure to find any weapons in the country, especially so long as other aspects of the war were going at least tolerably well." What made that conventional wisdom compelling, at least to me, was the further belief that anybody who was likely to care about missing WMDs would have gone to the trouble of paying attention to the search. I'm beginning to think that the further belief is wrong.
At the start of the Iraq War a majority of Americans believed not only that Iraq had WMDs, but also that Iraq had played a key role in the 9-11 attacks. I was inclined to think that ignorance of this sort could only be explained by indifference and apathy.
Now I think my analysis was too simplistic. It's not that people either care or don't whether the country is headed in the right direction. Instead, they both care and don't want to be bothered. They place their trust in elected officials but expect those officials to do their best and to act in good faith.
If right, this makes Bush's precipitous drop in the polls understandable. In addition to the fact that his policies have been thrown into doubt, it also appears that he betrayed the apathetic voter's trust in him. He threatened not only the welfare of the nation, but also the apathetic voter's confidence that it's safe to tune politics out.