BLAME THE POLLS. This revelation, courtesy of Tom Edsall in The New Republic, actually explains an awful lot:
In late 2000, even as the result of the presidential election was still being contested in court, George W. Bush's chief pollster Matt Dowd was writing a memo for Rove that would reach a surprising conclusion. Based on a detailed examination of poll data from the previous two decades, Dowd's memo argued that the percentage of swing voters had shrunk to a tiny fraction of the electorate. Most self-described "independent" voters "are independent in name only," Dowd told me in an interview describing his memo. "Seventy-five percent of independents vote straight ticket" for one party or the other. Once such independents are reclassified as Democrats or Republicans, a key trend emerges: Between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of true swing voters fell from a very substantial 24 percent of the electorate to just 6 percent. In other words, the center was literally disappearing. Which meant that, instead of having every incentive to govern as "a uniter, not a divider," Bush now had every reason to govern via polarization.
This ran counter to Rove's previous thinking. In 2000, he had dismissed the tactic of running on divisive issues like patriotism, crime, and welfare as "an old paradigm." And Bush had followed his advice by explicitly reaching out to the center-left. For instance, during the campaign, he held a press conference with a dozen gay Republicans and sharply criticized the GOP Congress for a plan to save money by slowing distribution of tax credits for the working poor. But Dowd's memo changed all that.
That, to me, had always been the great mystery of the Bush administration: How the humble candidate appealing for unity and decorum became an arrogant, bellicose, imperialist-minded partisan. That 2000 was all strategy -- and once the polls changed, so too did the strategy -- makes a lot of sense. It may be, as the administration likes to say, that the president doesn't read polls. But as Josh Green pointed out and Edsall reinforces, his advisors sure do, and he listens to them rather closely.