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‘100 Days’ Analysis Is Great Sport but Requires Perspective

What is it about the first 100 days of a presidential term that inevitably turns Washington upside down for a news cycle or two? Pundits, politicians of every stripe, and the media make grand assessments of the president’s progress and even broader pronouncements about what it all means for the future.

It’s a little like watching a gerbil on an exercise wheel — a lot of energy gets expended in a confined space but, in the end, it gets you nowhere. My gripe is that, too often, what is usually missing in this rush to judgment is some context and perspective.

While making a number of good points, Monday’s Washington Post article questioning President Bush’s so-called election mandate is a good example. Suggesting that a Republican Congressional Armageddon may be just around the corner, the story pointed out that Bush’s approval rating for his handling of Social Security is even lower than then-President Bill Clinton’s handling of his disastrous 1994 health care proposal. If Clinton lost the House and Senate, the article implied, could a similar fate be in store for Republicans in both chambers?

No one would dispute that the failure of Clinton’s health care initiative played a role in the GOP takeover of the House, but that view narrowly ignores the larger political context of the time.

Clinton ran in 1992 as a centrist promising a middle-class tax cut. But once seated in the White House, he lurched to the left and spent most of his first 100 days in office offering up a liberal agenda, ranging from gays in the military to “Hillary care,” that conflicted with the centrist image he had so carefully crafted in the campaign. Unlike Bush, Clinton never won the presidency with majority support. His 43 percent victory in 1992 could, in no way, be perceived as a mandate even if he had run on the controversial issues of his first 100 days.

Bush, on the other hand, won a clear majority for his second term and is doing exactly what he said he would do. No chameleon tactics for this president. Among other things, he promised to fix Social Security, reform the tort system and modernize the nation’s bankruptcy laws. Two out of three ain’t bad for 100 days.

But the most significant difference between the political environment of 1994 and today is the strategic approach taken by the opposition party toward the party in power. In the 1994 Congressional elections, the House Republican minority, led by Rep. Newt Gingrich (Ga.), beat Democrats by giving voters a serious alternative.

Republicans offered up a cohesive, cogent set of ideas — a little thing called the “Contract with America” — that captured the imaginations of voters disillusioned with Clinton’s ideological transformation. Gingrich took advantage of Clinton’s missteps, certainly, but his strategy to win was grounded in ideas.

That’s what’s missing in today’s political equation — an opposition caucus with serious ideas willing to go to the table and do the hard work of legislating. When it comes to solutions for fixing Social Security or developing an energy policy, the Democrats’ strategy appears to be attack, pontificate and avoid specifics.

Just this past weekend, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on CNN’s “Late Edition” looked like a pair of political pretzels as they tried to attack the president’s Social Security plans without proposing any serious solutions of their own. Pushed again and again for even one idea they could support, they simply stonewalled, except for Dodd’s momentary slip when he offered up a tax increase to solve the problems of the shaky retirement system.

All the recent media hype over the president’s agenda 100 days in — Has he overreached? Is he a lame duck? — has been fueled, in large part, by his job approval, 47 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll.

Some context is in order here, too. First, it’s important to point out that the Post poll, which received much criticism for the wording of its survey questions, also had a dubious demographic makeup: The party identification in the poll tilted toward Democrats, skewing the results against Bush.

Even in Clinton’s heyday, Democrats enjoyed only a 4-point advantage in party ID. In the most recent election, party identification was even. This poll gives Democrats a 7-point edge, coloring the results to some degree.

That said, Bush’s numbers are not where he wants them to be, but neither should they be read as a sign of his imminent political demise. At the moment, the American public seems to have adopted a bit of a Swiss strategy — a kind of neutrality toward the president and the current political environment. Most voters have not yet formulated a firm viewpoint because their top two issues, the economy and foreign policy, are still in a state of flux.

Although we’ve seen consistent job growth, lower unemployment and low inflation, increasing gas prices and their negative impact on the stock market have cross-pressured people’s optimism and made them unsure about the future.

A similar good news/bad news dynamic is at play on the foreign policy front. Most people reacted positively to the Iraqi elections in January. They believe we’re accomplishing our mission, that progress is being made. But the daily violence that continues in Iraq worries voters who have no sense of when the United States will disengage.

So, people are on the fence. They simply don’t know how to balance their conflicting views on the issues of greatest concern to them. As the Iraq situation clarifies and energy pressures subside, voters will come to more definitive conclusions. It’s only a matter of time.

Looking at Bush’s record in the first 100 days of his second term is great political sport, and there’s nothing wrong with it, I guess, as long as we keep it in perspective. Perhaps the better number to remember these days, however, isn’t 100 but 553 — the number of days until the 2006 election.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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