And You Thought People Hated President Bush!

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THE PLANK AUGUST 1, 2008

And You Thought People Hated President Bush!

A new YouGov survey from the UK shows British Prime Minister Gordon Brown with approval ratings that even our own incumbent president would look down on:

Barely one voter in seven believes he is fit for the job of prime minister, the YouGov survey indicates.

The Tories are on 47 per cent and Labour is on 25 per cent, a 22-point lead that would give Mr Cameron a landslide victory at a general election.

Only 9 per cent of voters said they believe Mr Brown is "in touch with the concerns of people like me." Fifty-two per cent say he "lacks the qualities needed to lead Britain effectively through its current economic problems" and 53 per cent, say Mr Brown dithers.

What must be especially painful for Brown is that according to the survey...

None of Mr Brown's likely replacements - including David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary - can save the party from an election humiliation at the hands of the Conservatives either, the poll finds. Only Tony Blair is more popular with voters than the Prime Minister. [Italics Mine]

Polling figures to one side, however, Miliband is an extremely appealing figure in many ways, and it will be fascinating to see what happens if he is able to wrest control of the Labour Party from Brown (See Alex Massie for some interesting thoughts on Miliband here and here).

Brown's stunning downfall--especially in its speed and comprehensiveness--is hard to completely understand. But I recommend that interested readers check out David Runciman's brilliant 2006 London Review of Books essay on politicians and popularity. The piece not only explains Blair's success (as compared to Brown's failure), but also has similar insights into Bill Clinton's political successes--and how they tragically and mortally wounded Al Gore. The key distinction here is between "liars" and "hypocrites" and it is Runciman's contention that voters always prefer the liar.

What Brown claimed in his speech was that it had been a privilege to serve under Tony Blair. Strictly speaking it wasn’t a lie, since every chancellor holds office on the sufferance of the prime minister...What’s more, I have a horrible feeling that Brown said it because he knew it wasn’t technically untrue, and his own sense of probity required that whatever he said to smooth over his differences with Blair shouldn’t be a brazen falsehood. Brown is not a born liar: he is, as we keep being reminded, a son of the manse, which, if it means anything, means that. But by not actually lying, Brown came across as something worse, a man who was happy to conceal the true state of his feelings.

... 

Bill Clinton was the sincerest liar in modern political history, and what he, and his opponents, and the American public discovered was that the sincerity could easily trump the lies...Clinton’s popularity rose as his mendacity was exposed....The people who suffered were those of his opponents he managed successfully to portray as hypocrites, pursuing some technical definition of the truth at the expense of basic human values, and with blithe disregard for their own difficulties in meeting the standards they set. Unfortunately, however, for the Democratic Party and for the wider world, one of the people who also came out of the Clinton years looking like a hypocrite was Al Gore, who couldn’t be as sincere about Clinton’s lies as the man himself, and who was therefore vulnerable to an opponent who appeared to have no side, and whose dumb sincerity stood in contrast to Gore’s crabbed and wooden rectitude. Gore suffered the fate that awaits anyone who must serve in silence under a politician skilled in the arts of public deception and personal revelation – they get left with the lies but without the means to defend them.

Given the state of Brown's government today, Runciman's prescient essay reads even better than it did two years ago, so check out the whole thing. (And if you are really interested in the topic, Runciman has turned this piece and others into a book, Political Hypocrisy).

--Isaac Chotiner 

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