Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Just Because People Believe It . . .

. . . that doesn't make it so.

In 1821, Thomas Jefferson told the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia, "No nation is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity." A new poll out today by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland suggests that we may be headed for a test of Mr. Jefferson's dictum. This, from the press release announcing the poll results, tells why:

As the nation prepares to watch the presidential candidates debate foreign policy issues, a new PIPA-Knowledge Networks poll finds that Americans who plan to vote for President Bush have many incorrect assumptions about his foreign policy positions. Kerry supporters, on the other hand, are largely accurate in their assessments. The uncommitted also tend to misperceive Bush’s positions, though to a smaller extent than Bush supporters, and to perceive Kerry’s positions correctly. Steven Kull, director of PIPA, comments: “What is striking is that even after nearly four years President Bush’s foreign policy positions are so widely misread, while Senator Kerry, who is relatively new to the public and reputed to be unclear about his positions, is read correctly.”

Majorities of Bush supporters incorrectly assumed that Bush favors including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements (84%), and the US being part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (69%), the International Criminal Court (66%), the treaty banning land mines (72%), and the Kyoto Treaty on global warming (51%). They were divided between those who knew that Bush favors building a new missile defense system now (44%) and those who incorrectly believe he wishes to do more research until its capabilities are proven (41%). However, majorities were correct that Bush favors increased defense spending (57%) and wants the US, not the UN, to take the stronger role in developing Iraq’s new government (70%).

This, I think, raises an interesting question about the debate tomorrow night. If Kerry accurately characterizes Bush's foreign policy positions in the debate, will a majority of the American people simply assume he's lying? Perhaps a more interesting question is this: Will post-debate spinmeisters do more to clarify or more to obscure Bush's actual positions on foreign policy positions?

It's a more interesting question, but not, I think, one that's particularly difficult to answer.