Recent comments by ABC correspondent Jake Tapper and MSNBC analyst and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan reflect the common logical fallacy that President Bush's re-election last year constitutes a public mandate for any specific policies and plans that were articulated prior to his electoral victory.
With Bush's approval ratings currently in the historically low mid-30-percent range and dropping seemingly every week, few -- if any -- media figures continue to claim Bush enjoys a broad mandate. But the notion persists that Bush's re-election constitutes proof of public approval for specific things that occurred or were promised before the election.
For example, Tapper wrote on his weblog Down and Dirty about the growing debate over whether America does -- or should -- torture prisoners:
I suspect we will be hearing much more about this topic in the coming weeks... [ellipses in original] It's a very uncomfortable debate for some. And a lot of Americans would probably not like to think about it, much less talk about it.
Keep in mind the very salient facts that Bush was re-elected long after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke and one of the key reasons a majority of Americans chose him over Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was they trusted the president to be a stronger leader against terrorism.
Likewise, Buchanan argued on the October 31 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country that Bush's re-election after promising to support Supreme Court justices such as Antonin Scalia constitutes evidence that the American people want him to nominate justices like Scalia:
BUCHANAN: [A]ll right, Catherine [Crier, Court TV host], we had that contest in 2004, and Bush said, "I'm going to appoint [William H.] Rehnquist, [Antonin] Scalia, [Clarence] Thomas justices." He won the election, so he's appointed a highly qualified man for America and someone of basically his judicial philosophy. Now, deal with it. The American people have spoken to this, and this guy is going through.
Tapper and Buchanan are suggesting that, because Bush was re-elected after Abu Ghraib and after his promise to appoint justices like Scalia, the public must approve of those things. But this is a deeply flawed argument. The fact that "Bush was re-elected long after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke" does not mean that the public approves -- or approved -- of the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. To take but one obvious historical analogue: Nobody would argue that, because Nixon was re-elected after the Watergate scandal broke, the American people approved of breaking into Democratic headquarters.
Yet Tapper and Buchanan -- and other media figures -- routinely make that very argument: that Bush's re-election constitutes evidence of public approval of every individual promise he made and every action he took prior to re-election.
Rather than looking at year-old election results, media figures trying to gauge public sentiment would be better off consulting current polling, which shows overwhelming public disapproval of Bush, both overall and on his handling of specific issues. Even on the "U.S. campaign against terrorism" -- the issue on which Tapper asserted the American people trusted Bush -- Bush has higher disapproval than approval ratings. They might also want to consider polling that shows that if the 2004 election were held today, Kerry would beat Bush by five percentage points nationally -- and that Bush is receiving low approval ratings even in states he won in 2004. In Virginia, for example -- a state Bush won by nine points -- only 44 percent approve of his job performance, while 55 percent disapprove, according to The Washington Post.
Or perhaps the media should simply consider the following:
1) Three recent polls -- conducted by ABC News/Washington Post, CBS News, and CNN/USA Today/Gallup -- show that a clear majority of Americans thinks the Bush administration misled the American people in making its case for going to war with Iraq.
2) According to a recent Zogby poll, a majority of Americans think Congress should consider impeaching President Bush if he "did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq."
That's a "mandate" that's been almost completely ignored by the media: A Media Matters search of the Nexis database found only one mention of the Zogby poll -- a Washingtonpost.com blog post by Dan Froomkin.
In an October 24 column, Madison, Wisconsin, Capital Times editor Dave Zweifel noted earlier polling showing that a plurality of Americans supported impeachment. Zweifel wrote:
The fact that half of the people would agree impeachment is in order is surprising because there really is no one campaigning for impeaching the president in any high-profile place, like in Congress or the media. People are coming to the conclusion by themselves.
But will Zweifel's colleagues in the media notice? Or will they continue suggesting that year-old election results prove public support for Bush's policies?