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Opportunism and polls

ARCHIVEst-jeffgreene_1279633588098.jpegJon Chait is pleased to see Charlie Crist admitting that political pressure factors into his policy positions. "I think it actually takes real guts to admit something like this," Chait writes. "There's no such thing is a non-opportunistic politician."

I actually think that people need to decide how they want to characterize this behavior. Sometimes politicians who are following the polls or the primary voters get labeled as "opportunistic," and sometimes they're just listening to constituents. Usually, the difference is who's describing them. Plenty of Republicans who would have attacked George W. Bush viciously for leaving Iraq because the poll told him to do so would have celebrated a Democratic politician who abandoned health-care reform because the polls were against it. And the reverse goes for Democrats, of course.

American voters (and pundits, and activists) seem a bit confused on this point: It's not clear whether they want politicians to lead or to follow. But it would probably be useful for politicians if we were clearer on this point. As it is, we actually do enable a lot of opportunism as politicians who hold unpopular views nobly remind us that leadership isn't about polls while the same politicians, when they have popular positions, tell us about how unpopular their opponent's stance on thew issue is.

Photo credit: Chris O'Meara/AP.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 20, 2010; 9:56 AM ET
 
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Comments

This was exactly what happened with Iraq and health care. After the 2006 midterms, Bush made the decision to surge. Dems attacked it saying it was clearly not what the people wanted. Republicans, of course, did the same with health care.

Posted by: DDAWD | July 20, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

"American voters (and pundits, and activists) seem a bit confused on this point: It's not clear whether they want politicians to lead or to follow."

That's because it's a phony issue. People want politicians to do whatever it is they want them to do. If the polls are with us, we'll claim "following the will of the people" is most important. If the polls are against us, we get the Edmund Burke line about politicians owing the people their judgement.

There's no real principle in place here for the vast majority of people, just opportunisitic attempts to dress their desired outcome of the moment up in a noble costume. Kind of like a frat boy in a toga.

Posted by: zimbar | July 20, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

--"There's no such thing is a non-opportunistic politician."--

And there is an endless supply of dupes, fed by opportunistic propagandists like Klein, to keep the political opportunity machine grinding along.

Socialism is the acquiescing to the political elite's rampant opportunism.

Posted by: msoja | July 20, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Politicians are supposed to be the adults in the room who remind us that we can't go out to eat every night & have to eat our vegetables. The good politicians are the ones who figure out how to cook the vegetables at home in a way that we don't wish we were out at a restaurant instead.

Posted by: bsimon1 | July 20, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, no pol has the full perspective of national security prior to going into the White House or possibly the applicable Congressional committees. Changing your mind on a position with new information involved is not opportunism; quite the opposite, in fact.

On the other hand, a pol may just have a personal opinion on an issue, that they talk about at length, when they have no decision-making power over that issue. Would you call it opportunism if the pol steps back and surveys their consitituents and the political field when the finally have to step up to the plate?

msoja - it sounds like you're a former Bush/Rove fan

Posted by: Jaycal | July 20, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

o In 2008, when Bush sent out stimulus checks to Americans, by putting money back into the economy it would stimulate spending, bolstering the economy! Nobody yelled “socialism” and economically it was the right thing to do! Now since Obama has been in office,any money spent is called “socialism”, “no” has been the republican answer to most programs.Republicans crying we can’t afford it after they ran up the biggest debt ever 11 trillion dollars! I will vote for Crist, America needs a third party, the republicans don’t want to spend a dime on unemployment benefits, any program that might enhance the economy, so its so broken they can fix it,ao In 2008, when Bush sent out stimulus checks to Americans, by putting money back into the economy it would stimulate spending, bolstering the economy! Nobody yelled “socialism” and economically it was the right thing to do! Now since Obama has been in office,any money spent is called “socialism”, “no” has been the republican answer to most programs.Republicans crying we can’t afford it after they ran up the biggest debt ever 11 trillion dollars! I will vote for Crist, America needs a third party, the republicans don’t want to spend a dime on unemployment benefits, any program that might enhance the economy, so its so broken they can fix it! And regain power!

Posted by: roosboys | July 20, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Most people respect politicians who take positions that are based on principles, so long as the pol can clearly articulate the connection and shows some flexibility when needed. Example: Tim Kaine in the VA Gov's race explaining that he was opposed to capital punishment as part of his religious (Catholic) beliefs but that he would enforce state law. Harry Reid takes the same position on abortion, more or less in that he is personally opposed for religious reasons (Mormon) but doesn't force his views on others.

What people don't like is politicians whose utterances sound like the product of a focus group rather than some sincere personal thought about the issue. In short, it comes down to phoniness, largely.

Crist went all "drill, baby, drill" when he was running as a GOPer but after his switch and the BP blowout, he went back to his original considered opposition to drilling off Florida. Voters seem to be ok with this because he recanted his opportunistic position and went back to what he really believed when it was vindicated as the right thing. True, the hard-line GOBPers don't like it but most FL voters seem to. Here he may also be reflecting the evolution of thinking on the part of a substantial number of voters.

Posted by: Mimikatz | July 20, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

What is really sad is that Fla is so mired in southern culture (read not electing blacks to statewide executive office) that a very good democratic african american candidate will not benefit from the republican party's move from the US political landscape to the mountains of rightwingnutistan. Crist abandoned the repubs and is taking the moderate voters that probably would have gone to Meek. Now non-rightwingnuts may end up splitting their vote and producing senator Rubio, which is great for Senate comedy but tragic for effective government.

Posted by: srw3 | July 20, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

I believe this is quite a gray area and a precise reason why Politics is different than so called Political Theory or Political Science.

Let us say by and large a politician is expected to follow the votes he or she gets. (That is what say Obama is doing, trying to pass bills on which he campaigned.) But the same politician is expected to go against this voter 'populism' for 'longer term' benefits. What is that 'longer term'? That is dictated by the vision that politician subscribes or renders fresh. Libertarians vision of American Society is different than that of Liberal views. Dr. King and President Regan in certain sense rendered a fresh vision or renewed the existing ones.

This is all gray and there are no hard and fast rules. A politician can be perfectly successfully while adhering to an already rendered vision faithfully while taking some non-popular decisions to achieve that vision. (Bill Clinton?) In most cases, politicians lamely follow a vision which becomes ideology without any flexibility or ability to go against orthodoxy. That is the reason why you may not see much difference between the way Vatican follows the 'dogma' and the way GOP follows the 'tax cut' dogma.

Posted by: umesh409 | July 20, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

@msoja:Socialism is the acquiescing to the political elite's rampant opportunism.

You really don't have any idea what modern democratic socialism actually is do you? Or that all industrial democracies have both capitalist and socialist features and there is a continuum between these two governing styles that all industrial democracies fall on. There are no "pure" capitalist states (see social security, medicare, SNAP, etc. for evil socialism in the US) among industrial democracies and no "pure" socialist states (every European democracy has a relatively robust market economy in most sectors).

Where exactly are the political elites almost all millionaires and multimillionaires? Would those be the democracies in Europe with their evil socialist welfare states or the US where there isn't a single republican senator (and precious few dems senators) who ISN'T A MILLIONAIRE OR MULTIMILLIONAIRE! Most representatives are also in the top 5% of all income earners, regardless of party. Incumbents win about 95% of the time, which creates in effect a "political elite" which is very susceptible to "rampant opportunism". Meanwhile in evil socialist Europe the income difference between legislators and the rest of society is probably 1/2 or 1/3 as large as the in the US. So which system is controlled by a tiny elite at the top of the national wealth pyramid?

Posted by: srw3 | July 20, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

"that a very good democratic african american candidate..."

My sister, who's almost as liberal as I am and lives in FL, says that Meek is an empty suit who inherited his Congressional seat from his mother. He is apparently a weak candidate who will finish third in the general election. Don't blame his loss on other factors that don't count.

Posted by: steveh46 | July 20, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I always remember cringing whenever Bush said "I don't pay attention to the polls" -- implying that popular opinion had no effect on policy making.

Of course, it always does and always will. Any half-way civic minded politician should WANT to know where his or her constituents views are at any given moment. Sometimes the views will be ill-informed or colored by misinformation -- knowing that at least allows a politician to catch the problem and adjust his or her pitch accordingly.

Top-performing organizations do this all the time. Why should we expect any less from professional politicians?

In some cases a politician might steer clear of a policy because of the polls, but in some cases a politician might simply learn from the polls how best to re-frame an issue in the mind of the public so that he or she can effectively sell a policy that the public might resist for any number of reasons (e.g. because the program is hard to explain; because of misinformation and fear-mongering on the other side).

Any politician who says "I don't pay attention to the polls" is a liar. Even if that politician does not literally read polls, his or her advisers do.

The bitter irony is that W's advisers may have very well poll-tested the phrase "I don't pay attention to the polls" and found that it was received well by the demographic groups that they were targeting. (i.e. the phrase "I don't pay attention to the polls" may very well be a product of market research polling).

Posted by: JPRS | July 20, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

A good politician will lead and follow. When the public is well-informed and has a strong opinion, politicians should follow public opinion. If the public is not well informed or is divided, politicians should lead. Obviously this is more likely to be the case for most issues.

Posted by: kisfiu | July 20, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

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