Why the Government doesn’t care what you think

People were shocked last Wednesday, on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, to hear Vice President Cheney say "So?" in response to ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz’s questions about public opposition to the war. During the interview at Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa in Oman, the Vice President elaborated by saying "I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls."

Although many objected to Cheney’s response, his candor should at least help shatter the myth of public opinion primacy. In the United States, the president and vice president are under no greater obligation to follow the will of the people than Cheney’s host government in Oman. Vice President Cheney, appearing relaxed during his resort vacation, was simply being forthright about that reality. His statement was a bit terse, but who wants to be reminded of the Iraq war when you’re staying at a spa oasis and spending the day on a yacht?

In a briefing the next day when reporters asked White House press secretary Dana Perino about Cheney’s cavalier response to Raddatz’s question, there was further elaboration. Perino explained that in our political system, people provide input by casting their vote every four years. End of story.

People were again outraged, asking how public opposition to the war can be ignored, and the 2006 election results, considered by many to be a referendum on the war, so casually dismissed. One organization quickly posted the results of a World Public Opinion poll on its Think Progress site, showing that 81% of Americans "say that government should pay attention to polls."

The government does pay attention. Since Nixon all U.S. presidents — including George W. Bush — have made polling a staple of their presidencies. But historically U.S. presidents have responded to public opinion in contradictory ways. The reality is that our political system is based on an extremely strong executive branch, and the current Administration has shown time and time again that it does not have to be responsive to public opinion.

In a paper for the Brookings Institution, Kathryn Dunn Tenpas explains that Bush’s disregard for public opinion, in part, represents an attempt to distinguish himself from Bill Clinton, who Bush perceived as relying too heavily on opinion polls. After analyzing public documents and Federal Election Commission records, along with interviews with Bush insiders, Tenpas finds that, "despite the president’s disdain for public opinion polls, he has created a formidable White House political operation that focuses closely on them." Which begs the obvious question: if the Bush Administration spends millions on polling, then why does it consistently flout public opinion?

A president’s responsiveness to opinion polls depends on a number of things, including personal popularity and where he is in the electoral cycle. A president like George W. Bush, who is unpopular and in his last year in office, is unlikely to be influenced by public opinion. Bush’s status as lame duck gives him little scope to initiate further legislation, but very little reason to give up what he has already achieved: 150,000 boots on the ground in Iraq, with at least some faint hope of salvaging his legacy. And nowhere to go but up in the polls he professes to ignore.

All of this explains why Cheney has a uniquely free hand to express his disregard for the public’s opposition to the war. Not only is Bush a lame duck, but no one from his inner circle is going to succeed him.

If the mid-term elections were a referendum on the Iraq war, they were a non-binding referendum, at best. They had no bearing on the composition of the executive branch, except to the extent that they led to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. Perhaps the newly empowered Democrats in control of the legislative branch could have exercised their leverage more vigorously. But ultimately the President’s veto power and his role as Commander-in-Chief left Congress with little room for maneuver.

What influence Congress had in ending the Iraq war eroded when almost everyone voted to provide unconditional funding for the war. Politicians are going to be most responsive to public opinion (and most likely to pander) when they are running for election or re-election. Cheney’s comments were all the more jarring when sandwiched between images of three presidential candidates who seem locked in a perpetual struggle to see who can out-pander whom.

All the more reason for us to elect the right person come November — so that in four years, we don’t run the risk of seeing someone from the next administration yawn in the public’s face.