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Public Says Ethical Standards in Politics are Low — As Usual

How ethical are politicians these days? According to recent polls, it’s a mixed bag.

In an Oct. 3-5 CBS News poll, 5 percent of respondents said most Republican Members of Congress had more integrity than most other people in public life, 37 percent said GOP Members had less integrity and 53 percent said they had about the same amount. [IMGCAP(1)]

As for the other side of the aisle, 9 percent of respondents said most Democratic Members had more, 28 percent said they had less and 58 percent said they were about the same.

In a late September PSRA/Newsweek poll, 7 percent of respondents told the pollsters that the ethical conduct of Members of Congress had improved in recent years, 34 percent said it had declined and 56 percent said it had stayed the same.

Twenty-three percent said the current Republican-controlled Congress would turn out to have more political corruption than the previous Democratic Congresses, while 15 percent said it would turn out to have less and 56 percent said it would be about the same.

As for the executive branch, 28 percent said the Bush administration would turn out to be more corrupt than previous administrations, with 25 percent saying less so and 44 percent saying about the same.

After being told by Fox News/Opinion Dynamics that “several high-profile Republicans have been the focus of legal controversies, including a grand jury indictment of Texas Congressman Tom DeLay and a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of Tennessee Senator Bill Frist,” 34 percent said the actions were better described as politically motivated attacks and 29 percent said they were better described as legitimate legal actions. Fourteen percent said they fit both categories, while 22 percent didn’t know.

In an Oct. 8-10 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 31 percent said they didn’t know Tom DeLay’s name. Of the remainder, 11 percent had a positive opinion of him and 36 percent had a negative one. Twenty-two percent were neutral.

In the poll, 24 percent called the DeLay indictment the usual kind of partisan political charge that has little merit, while 65 percent said the charge indicated potential illegal activity.

As for Frist’s stock sale, 28 percent said it was a partisan charge with little merit, while 57 percent said it indicated potential illegal activity.

A Little Understanding. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a poll where potential Republican presidential candidates best Democratic ones on understanding the needs of average Americans — until now.

Sixty-three percent of respondents in a Sept. 27-28 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll said that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) understood the needs of average Americans, while 57 percent gave that response about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

One potential Democratic candidate for president, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), also broke the 50 percent barrier, with 53 percent.

Not so for the past two Democratic presidential nominees. Just 41 percent said that former Vice President Al Gore understood the needs of average Americans, edging out Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) with 40 percent.

And President Bush? Forty-five percent said he understood, but 51 percent said he did not.

Avian Flu. Just 35 percent in a new Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll said that they believed the federal government is very or somewhat prepared to deal with a potential outbreak of bird flu, while 55 percent thought the government was not very or not at all prepared.

In the poll, 63 percent said they were concerned about the spread of the flu here. Sixty-five percent said the president should have the authority to use the military to enforce quarantines in affected areas.

Winning the War on Terror? Thirty-six percent of respondents told Fox News/Opinion Dynamics interviewers that the United States and its allies were more committed to winning the war on terror, while an identical 36 percent said radical Muslims and extremists were.

Turning the Corner in Iraq? In a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 40 percent said the worst is still ahead for us in Iraq, 45 percent said we are slowly putting the worst behind us with a long way to go, 8 percent said we are putting the worst behind us and better times are near, and 5 percent said we already have turned the corner.

Rumsfeld’s Marks. In an October 2005 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 39 percent approved of the job Donald Rumsfeld was doing as secretary of Defense. That’s way down from Fox’s April 2003 poll, in which he earned a 67 percent approval rating.

An Unsuccessful President? In an Oct. 6-10 survey, 26 percent of respondents told Pew Research Center pollsters that George Bush would be a successful president in the long run, while 41 percent said he’d be an unsuccessful one.

The same question was asked nine times during Bill Clinton’s presidency. No more than 35 percent ever said his presidency would be unsuccessful in the long run.

Karlyn Bowman is a resident fellow specializing in public opinion and polls at the American Enterprise Institute.

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