While Friday's New York Times underlined "broad support" for current immigration "reform" proposals, selectively highlighting the positive poll results, this is not how the Times reported the Bush tax cuts of 2001. Back then, Times reporters tried to dismiss their own poll numbers as meaningless and growing more irrelevant by the hour.
On March 14, 2001, the Times report by Richard Berke and Janet Elder highlighted how Bush had a decent approval rating, but he and Vice President Cheney also drew lots of negatives. The headline was "60% In Poll Favor Bush, But Economy Is Major Concern." This, in paragraph eight, is how they pooh-poohed the public support for tax cuts:
On the immediate agenda, Mr. Bush should be encouraged that most Americans endorse his signature blueprint to cut taxes. Yet they do not seem deeply enthusiastic. Most see the plan as favoring the rich and doing little, if anything, to help average, middle-income people or to stimulate the economy.
Notice that the reporters didn't cite an actual pro-tax cut majority number in the story. It was 67 percent. In fact, Berke and Elder then spent five paragraphs underlining how support for tax cuts is vague, fairly ignorant, and even makes congressional Republicans fiscal villains. Its support must be the result of dumb luck or dumber voters:
One reason the public may be supportive of Mr. Bush's tax cut is that this poll was taken in the flush of victory, just as the plan was being passed by the House of Representatives. The nationwide telephone poll of 1,105 adults was conducted March 8-12 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
At the very least, Mr. Bush has had something of a public relations victory on the tax proposal. Americans are receptive to his argument that a tax cut is in order because otherwise the surplus would be spent recklessly by the Congress. Fifty-six percent of those polled agree that control of the money has to be taken from Congress. It is a strategy that may undermine Mr. Bush's own partisans given that Republicans control Congress -- and the president has made them the villains.
Although the public favors a tax cut, and more prefer Mr. Bush's plan, many Americans seemed unaware of the particulars of it. They were nearly as willing to sign off on a far less ambitious tax-cut plan than the Democrats'. Fifty-seven percent say they favor Mr. Bush's plan while 36 percent oppose it. The Democrats' plan is supported by 49 percent and opposed by 42 percent.
Support for Mr. Bush's measure may have more to do with its high visibility than any endorsement of its contents. Most people say the plan will not have much effect on their finances and that it favors the rich. Moreover, Americans do not seem to know much about either plan. Although twice as many Americans have heard far more about the Bush plan than the Democrats' plan, the number is still low: 31 percent.
People seem conflicted about what they want in a tax cut -- and whether it is the proper alternative. Most Americans say they prefer a tax cut to paying down the debt. But in response to another question, a majority say a large tax cut now would be bad for the economy or not make much difference at all. And when offered a choice, people still prefer using the surplus to shore up Social Security rather than to cut taxes.
In another tax-cut poll story – on June 21, 2001 – the view of tax cuts seems to have grown darker. Another story by Berke and Elder was headlined "Bush Loses Favor Despite Tax Cut and Overseas Trip." Despite the tax cut? Does that mean a tax cut helped Bush’s popularity? You wouldn’t know from reading the story. There was this polling data:
There was a wide perception that the Bush administration favors the rich over the middle class and poor, with 57 percent saying the administration's policies favor the rich, 8 percent saying they favor the middle class, 2 percent saying they favor the poor, and 27 percent saying the administration equally addresses the interests of all groups.
Later, Berke and Elder also stressed respondents felt the tax cut would have little effect, and could have been better "spent" by bureaucrats:
Apart from the discomfort about Mr. Bush himself, the public's anxiety about the future of Social Security is as high now as at any time in the 10 previous readings taken over the last 20 years by the Times and CBS News. The respondents said Mr. Bush's tax cut of $1.35 trillion over 10 years would not have much effect on the economy -- and that the money could have been put to better use in programs like Social Security and Medicare. (The tax cut has been approved, but people have yet to receive their rebate checks.)
Looking back, was the Times right to insist with its reporters and pollster questions that the tax cut would have little effect on the economy?