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Dis-Approval Ratings

By RD Heldenfels Published: November 9, 2005

It's the day after an election and one that went badly for President Bush and his crowd, and that was a big story today; for awhile it looked even bigger than the hearings with the oil companies. (And am I the only one to find it just the tiniest bit convenient that gas prices were dropping in the days leading up the hearings, and have popped up again now that the exercise is over?) We probably would still be hearing politics were it not for in Jordan, which gave the cable news outlets a fresh reason for big red graphics and split screens.

But there's one thing the anti-Bush celebrators are getting wrong about the current climate. They spend too much time talking about approval ratings.

We hear a lot in the news about that particular barometer of politicians. You know, ''40 percent of Americans think that President Bush would kick a dog if he thought no one was looking,'' versus ''20 percent of Americans believe that any dog meeting President Bush would immediately lick his hand.'' And because President Bush's ratings have been low, there's been a lot of arguing about whether that affects other elections, and how his ratings stack up against other presidents. (''I happen to know,'' a Fox News pundit would surely declare, ''that 55 percent of people thought Bill Clinton would not only kick a dog, he would then steal its bone and dish!'')

But approval ratings don't mean anything. And I say that even though that my personal approval rating of President Bush requires negative numbers. The ratings don't mean anything, because they don't tell you what the other choice is.

If I don't like President Bush, but he runs against a guy I dislike even more, I am going to have to hold my nose and vote for Bush.

All right, it's unlikely that there was a Democrat bad enough to make me do that.

But let's say it's 2008 and the Republicans have gotten behind Bill Frist. Joe Undecided is looking at Frist's scandals, and the Terri Schiavo thing, and the fights in the Senate, and he thinks, this guy is bad.  But then he looks across the ballot and there's Sleepy, Doc or Dopey. Or there's someone who's not really terrible, but who has just been the target of so many attack ads that he wishes people thought he was Sleepy, Doc or Dopey. Who's Joe going to vote for?

So-called news experts will try to convince you that low approval ratings do matter. I heard one pundit today saying that the low approval ratings encourage people to run against you. But that's not a good thing, either. If all the hacks smell blood, then all the hacks run and attack each other in the primaries. The Last Hack Standing has then handed the opposition a stack of nasty quotes and ideas -- from other Democrats.

Here's what you want if you're planning to be president. A year or two before the election, you want the guy on the other ticket to have huge approval ratings. Enormous. You want him to seem heroic, a winner, a champ. You want him to look so good that no one in his right mind would run against this guy. Because then the guys who are crazy enough to run might also turn out to be smart enough to win.

A wacky scenario? Remember the elder George Bush's approval ratings after the Gulf War? Remember that only nuts no one knew much about were willing to take him on? Remember that one of those nuts was named Clinton?

So come on, people. When those pollsters come around, tell them that W. is doing a terrific job. Say you love him. Get his approval rating up, and that of any other Republican who might want the White House. Then we can enjoy the confounded look on the experts' faces in three years -- when they're trying to explain how someone with such high approval ratings got trounced.

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