THE BLOG
02/17/2009 01:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Greenberg's Dispatches from the War Room

About a week ago, Armando Lorens took me to task, in part, for looking at how the ongoing economic stimulus debate might affect Barack Obama's job approval rating. The time for a "polling argument," he wrote, is not now but "as elections approach, when results [of policy] are evaluated." Too many people like me, he added "can not see past the day to day gyrations of the polling trees and miss the policy (and eventually, political) forest."

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His argument is one of the more popular critiques of public opinion polling. Polls are interesting just before elections, but should stay far away from policy. Leaders should make policy without regard to the whims of public opinion, or so the argument goes, crafting the best policy, ignoring and polls and letting the results speak for themselves at the next election. "Good policy is good politics."

The problem with the argument is that elected officials, like the rest of us, tend to be self-interested. They want to win the next election. Moreover, in constitutional governments, leaders must win support from legislatures or hold together parliamentary majorities. So whether we like it or not, public opinion -- or perhaps more accurately, the way leaders perceive public opinion -- ultimately acts as a control on policy options. Consider the way V.O. Key, one of the most influential political scientists of the last century, defined the term "public opinion," in his 1961 book, Public Opinion and American Democracy (as cited by Donald R. Kinder in The Handbook of Social Psychology , p. 780):

[T]hose opinions held by private citizens which governments find it prudent to heed. Governments may be compelled toward action or inaction by such opinion; in other instances they may ignore it, perhaps at their peril; they may attempt to alter it, or they may divert and pacify it.

That conflict is in many ways the central theme of Stan Greenberg's new memoir Dispatches from the War Room, which serves as an extended history of how five leaders -- Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, Ehud Barak and Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de Lozado -- navigated the waters of public opinion in their campaigns and in government.

Dispatches is different from typical pollster books, which tend toward analyses of their data, prescriptions for how "our side can win," thinly veiled efforts to market their services, or some combination of these. Dispatches is most memorable for Greenberg's effort to convey the human side of his role: What it was like, for example, to attain the pinnacle of professional success in helping Bill Clinton win the White House in 1992 only to be fired two years later, replaced by Dick Morris and Mark Penn. What was it like to play a similar role to Tony Blair in 1997 and 2001, only to be shunted aside (again for Penn at the urging, he says, of Bill and Hillary Clinton) in 2005?

The new book will be our focus this week as Greenberg himself joins in for an extended dialogue that will include the other contributors to this site and, of course, your comments. It should be interesting.

To kick it off, I want to start with Greenberg's thesis that all five leaders pursued a "politics of purpose" for which public support was essential. Each of these leaders, he writes, "deserve our respect precisely because they are consumed with people and popular support." Each had a political "project," a mission beyond their own electoral success, and close attention to public opinion was critical to the success at that project.

Each used polling to determine if the people were with them, increasing the prospects for actually doing what they set out to do. And as they drove forward on the mission, they used polling to look back over their shoulder to see of the populace was following, if the battalions were marching with them. They were consumed with keeping or building support for the mission, particularly at the time of key legislative or parliamentary battles and as they faced the looming judgement of the voters in reelection (p. 403).

In addition to this defense of the work that pollsters do, Greenberg's lessons include some tough critiques. I want to ask about two of them.

First, he wonders whether the "politics of purpose" is giving way to "mere tactics...a focus on the game, the tactics and winning outside of the idea of a political, partisan, or ideological project." He provides as examples, the work of political consultants like Frank Luntz and Dick Morris, whose "whole premise" is "the 'end of ideology' -- the end of big political projects, big issues, or strong party affinities -- as the new reality."

My question: Isn't the politics of "mere tactics" always part of the process at some level? My experience is that all politicians are a mix of ambitions to accomplish something and be something. In some, however, the desire to hold and maintain public office is paramount, and they are often the most likely to chase any tactic or policy that serves that end. Those actors are always present -- in campaigns, legislatures and executive offices -- and to the extent that they hold power, their motives must be considered by nobler colleagues chasing bigger accomplishments. Moreover, as Greenberg explains, even the heros of this book sometimes resort to "mere tactics" to secure reelection. After all, both Clinton and Blair turned to Penn, whose pursuit of "soccer moms" and "married mums" (respectively) define the sort of tactical politics that Greenberg condemns.

Second, the most candid observation from the book concerns Greenberg's admission that his focus groups and polls mislead him on the question of whether Israeli voters would ever accept a division of Jerusalem. At first, two-thirds of voters in his surveys said "it was unacceptable to have a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem." When Greenberg "saw no movement" when he presented arguments for the division in surveys, and voters "nearly cried" in focus groups, insisting that dividing Jerusalem would be "like taking away your beloved child." Greenberg advised his client that such a policy was a "dead end."

Yet four weeks after Ehud Barak put that option on the bargaining table at Camp David, despite a negative approval rating and strong opposition in parliament, a majority of Israelis were ready to "go with him" on Jerusalem in Greenberg's polling. Thus Greenberg raises a critical question:

If I cannot believe what people tell me is unacceptable in my surveys on Jerusalem, then what of my findings on other subjects? Why can't a determined leader change these too?

Perhaps the lesson is that pollsters should never say never. We learn that lesson with regard to "statistical significance" and sampling error (which is always about probabilities). Why not extend that idea to the more complex issues of measurement and interpretation: ,We are never absolutely certain of anything. The best we can do is sort out the relative difficulties of persuasion. On some issues, voters are open and easily moved. On other issues, only leaders with exceptional "bully pulpits" acting in truly extraordinary circumstances will change minds. Barak knew that his choice involved enormous risks, but he made it anyway. Obviously, Greenberg regrets his "dead end" advice, but otherwise, he advised Barak correctly that a divided Jerusalem would be the biggest obstacle to public acceptance of an accord in Israel. Isn't that what Barak was paying him for?

This last issue is in many ways the most important question raised by Greenberg's new book. What is your answer?

Update: Greenberg responds here. Follow the complete series here. Also, interest disclosed: I worked from 1990 to 1991 at Stan Greenberg's company -- then known
Greenberg-Lake: The Analysis Group -- as a senior analyst to his then
partner Celinda Lake.  By chance, my last day at the company was the same day
he announced he would be working for Bill Clinton in 1992.