Over at my Turtle-Loving Neighbors to the North's web-site, there is an interesting discussion brewing on this thread over the question of the relationship between polls and political leadership. My interlocutor in the comments section, Cameron, uses the changing nature of President Bush's poll numbers as evidence that the Democrats shouldn't rely too much on current polling that gives them clear public support for everything from solid oversight of the Executive Branch to setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. After all, Bush once had high poll numbers, and look at him now. The subtext, of course, is that the Democrats are following fickle public opinion, whereas Bush, staying a suicidal course with Nixonian poll numbers, is a political hero, doing what he thinks is right regardless of polls.
There are two parts to a response to this position. First, I would agree that generally speaking it is not a good thing for politicians to chase poll numbers to tweak public policy (this was a constant complaint against the Clinton Administration by both the left and the right). Yet, it would seem that public opinion is actually following Congressional leadership on these and a host of issues, rather than vice-versa. The Democratic leadership in Congress has staked out a series of policy and oversight positions, acted upon them, and the public has approved with substantially steady numbers. The polls follow the acts, not vice-versa, giving a lie to the notion that the Democrats are opportunistic, poll-driven nihilists. In fact, they are following an electoral mandate granted in the November, 2006 elections to do certain things, are their actions are all well within that mandate. The support they continue to get is because the public is impressed with their refusal to cower under the not-so-withering assaults of the Republican Administration.
Second, there is also something to be said for someone, anyone, who continues to do what he or she thinks is right in the face of all sorts of outrageous slings and arrows. Heroism is indeed one epithet to describe such actions. However, insanity and delusion are also ways to describe such actions. When the actions are accompanied by a series of factually challenged assertions - oh, let's just begin with WMDs in Iraq, shall we? - then we are entering into loony land rather than hero land. The consistent pattern of Bush and his Administration has been to do something, spread all kinds of nonsensical falsehoods about why they were doing it, and when called out about the falsehoods, deny they ever said such things. When this lie is, again, pointed out to them, they deny denying their lies. Then, like Cheney carrying on, to this day about a non-existent meeting between Al Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence operatives in Prague, reality ceases to have any relationship to the position one is supporting. Again, this isn't heroism. This is clinically insane behavior, and it is not worth emulating, but obstructing at every opportunity.
As for the "fickleness" of public opinion, remember this - the public expresses its opinions based upon as much information as it may have at any given time, as well as certain factors such as the emotional tenor of the times (the period right after 9/11) that are harder to pin down. Reputable polling agencies weigh all sorts of these matters and ask a number of questions that drive their numbers toward a reflection of public opinion based upon these two separate categories. Polls are reflective of the public's understanding and feeling on matters of substantive policy matters. With a plethora of sources for information out there, and the steadiness of Bush's low poll numbers, the drop in the President's poll numbers serves not as a warning for Democrats over the fickleness of the public. It serves as a case study in what happens when the public comes to understand they have elected a bunch of people to high office who are untrustworthy; they stop trusting them, and seek out those who are trustworthy to guard against the abuse of power by those who should never have been entrusted with it in the first place.