The Oblivious Right
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Published: April 25, 2005
According to John Snow, the Treasury secretary, the global economy is in a "sweet spot." Conservative pundits close to the administration talk, without irony, about a "Bush boom."
Yet two-thirds of Americans polled by Gallup say that the economy is "only fair" or "poor." And only 33 percent of those polled believe the economy is improving, while 59 percent think it's getting worse.
Is the administration's obliviousness to the public's economic anxiety just partisanship? I don't think so: President Bush and other Republican leaders honestly think that we're living in the best of times. After all, everyone they talk to says so.
Since November's election, the victors have managed to be on the wrong side of public opinion on one issue after another: the economy, Social Security privatization, Terri Schiavo, Tom DeLay. By large margins, Americans say that the country is headed in the wrong direction, and Mr. Bush is the least popular second-term president on record.
What's going on? Actually, it's quite simple: Mr. Bush and his party talk only to their base - corporate interests and the religious right - and are oblivious to everyone else's concerns.
The administration's upbeat view of the economy is a case in point. Corporate interests are doing very well. As a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, over the last three years profits grew at an annual rate of 14.5 percent after inflation, the fastest growth since World War II.
The story is very different for the great majority of Americans, who live off their wages, not dividends or capital gains, and aren't doing well at all. Over the past three years, wage and salary income grew less than in any other postwar recovery - less than a tenth as fast as profits. But wage-earning Americans aren't part of the base.
The same obliviousness explains Mr. Bush's decision to make Social Security privatization his main policy priority. He doesn't talk to anyone outside the base, so he didn't realize what he was getting into.
In retrospect, it was a terrible political blunder: the privatization campaign has quickly degenerated from juggernaut to joke. According to CBS, only 25 percent of the public have confidence in Mr. Bush's ability to make the right decisions about Social Security; 70 percent are "uneasy."
The point is that people sense, correctly, that Mr. Bush doesn't understand their concerns. He was sold on privatization by people who have made their careers in the self-referential, corporate-sponsored world of conservative think tanks. And he himself has no personal experience with the risks that working families face. He's probably never imagined what it would be like to be destitute in his old age, with no guaranteed income.
The same syndrome has been visible on cultural issues. Republican leaders in Congress, who talk only to the religious right, were shocked at the public backlash over their meddling in the Schiavo case. Did I mention that Rick Santorum is 14 points behind his likely challenger?
It all makes you wonder how these people ever ended up running the country in the first place. But remember that in 2000, Mr. Bush pretended to be a moderate, and that in the next two elections he used the Iraq war as a wedge to divide and perplex the Democrats.
In that context, it's worth noting two more poll results: in one taken before the recent resurgence of violence in Iraq, and the administration's announcement that it needs yet another $80 billion, 53 percent of Americans said that the Iraq war wasn't worth it. And 50 percent say that "the administration deliberately misled the public about whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction."
Democracy Corps, the Democratic pollsters, say that there is a "crisis of confidence in the Republican direction for the country." As they're careful to point out, this won't necessarily translate into a surge of support for Democrats.
But Americans are feeling a sense of dread: they're worried about a weak job market, soaring health care costs, rising oil prices and a war that seems to have no end. And they're starting to notice that nobody in power is even trying to deal with these problems, because the people in charge are too busy catering to a base that has other priorities.