WASHINGTON - A long time ago, maybe in the first Eisenhower administration, my precinct committeewoman taught me the unchanging rules of how to respond to public opinion polls. If the polls show your candidate trailing badly, then simply attack polls and anyone who blindly follows them: "I will always be grateful, as an American, that at Valley Forge, Gen. George Washington did not take any polls. If he had, you and I would still be bowing and curtseying before everyone in the British royal family."
But if the polls instead show your side with a big lead, just acknowledge, with humility, the results: "A poll, of course, is nothing more than a snapshot in time. These numbers, while encouraging, will just make us work harder to earn the support of the hardworking Americans we seek to serve." You know the drill.
But once in a while, a poll appears for which the rehearsed rebuttals do not work and to which one must pay attention. That brings us directly to the August NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. True, we have seen similar numbers before: Americans give failing grades to Congress, both political parties (yes, Republicans worse than Democrats), the president and Wall Street. Not much new there. But the real casualty in this respected survey conducted by Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican pollster Bill McInturff is not any politician or profession; it is that American optimism is now on life support.
Think about it. We are Americans who grew up believing there would be a happy ending, that the underdog - for whom Americans almost invariably root - could topple the bigger, stronger opponent. If you remove optimism from the American DNA, then the U.S. becomes little more than a continental Belgium. No disrespect intended to anyone from Brussels, but there are not people at this moment working, saving, dreaming, scheming and praying on how to get to Belgium.
The poll asked people which of the following statements comes closer to their view: "The United States is a country where anyone, regardless of their background, can work hard, succeed and be comfortable financially" or "The widening gap between the incomes of the wealthy and everyone else is undermining the idea that every American has the opportunity to move up to a better standard of living." A majority (54 percent) - including 61 percent of American women - chose the "widening gap undermining opportunity" answer, and just 44 percent of all voters and 34 percent of independents picked the "anyone can succeed" option.
"Do you feel confident that life for our children's generation will be better than it has been for us?" More than three out of four of us - 76 percent - predict a less bright future for our children. More than seven out of 10 say the recession had an impact on them either "a lot" or "some." And for 40 percent - which represents approximately 126 million Americans - someone in their household lost a job in the last five years. The Great Recession may be over, according to economists' graphs, but for too many of our neighbors, it remains an open wound.
When we are optimistic, we are more generous in our public policy. If the economic pie is going to get bigger, then we welcome more to the table to share. This was the case in the 1960s, when Americans, during a decade when the U.S.'s gross domestic product doubled, had the courage and the confidence to correct the nation's original sin of racial segregation. During the 21st century, when Americans' median household income has continued to decline, we have failed on immigration.
Without optimism and the confidence and courage that it inspires, the U.S. would be, sadly, a much different and less special place.
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To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.