It's gotten a whole lot harder, I just found, to do my Wal-Mart surveys. Readers who have been with WORLD for a while know that every now and then I head for the front door of the local discounter to do my own primary research-all based, of course, on a very unscientific but folksy poll.
Today my thesis was: If the Bush administration deserves the low marks it's getting for its conduct of the war in Iraq over the last four years, leading the nation fruitlessly from one frustration to another, maybe it's because that administration has so regularly failed to clarify what the war is all about. That clarification is lacking both for the nation at large and for those conducting the war.
So, I wondered, what do Wal-Mart shoppers think? My question on this cool July morning would be simple: Is it your sense that the war in Iraq is mostly about defending America from further terrorism-or is it about helping the people of Iraq restore their country and building a democracy there?
The answer to that question makes all the difference in the world. For if the case can be made, and I believe it can, that the future of the United States and its whole way of life are at stake, the people of America should rally to the cause. But if the argument is that we should keep sending our young men and women to give their lives and their limbs for a democracy the Iraqis aren't at all sure they want, the Bush people shouldn't be surprised when their ratings drop as precipitously as they have.
Here's what I found.
First, I discovered a far more edgy-and even grouchy-set of people out there to talk to. Compared to my other Wal-Mart ventures, this foray was difficult. Folks weren't inclined to talk, and a good number of those who were willing turned me off as soon as they learned that the topic was Iraq.
I wanted to get responses from 50 people-not because that's some magic number, but my experience over the last 10 years had told me I'd have to approach 60 or 70 people to get 50 to talk to me. That would probably take a couple of hours.
But 60 minutes into my self-assigned task, I was well short of the 25 respondents I needed to be on pace. And then 30 minutes later, a store official informed me that I'd have to move on. Store regulations didn't permit my approaching customers the way I was, and one of them had complained to the manager. No, it didn't matter, she said, that I wasn't selling anything, or that I was gathering information for a news story. This was private property, and they'd appreciate my respecting that fact. I edged out from the air-conditioned entrance to the sun-baked sidewalk, but she said they owned that too. And she told me bluntly that she wasn't interested in my survey either.
I know enough about statistics not to report any percentages to you from my small sample of only 22 respondents; they would have no validity at all. But I also know enough about human nature to believe I can report to you-with validity-that the American republic may never have been so bewildered about the mission of a war.
I'm pressing on this coming week, not to Wal-Mart but to Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, and Home Depot (if they don't run me off) for a little broader cross-section. But I'm predicting now what I expect to report to you in next week's column. Folks are very unsure whether this is about us, or about them. Because of that ambiguity, they are beyond edgy and approaching angry. It's getting dark out there.
That's not all President Bush's fault, to be sure. Both his Democratic opposition and the mainstream media have misrepresented him at every turn.
But the president has played into their hands. His "They're-coming-to-get-us" approach was both valid and effective-especially when the enemy kept reminding us of its intentions with continuing attacks around the globe. But switching from that to "We-can-build-a-democracy-in-Iraq" blurred the issue. And both the Bush team and the whole nation are paying a terrible price for that careless and unnecessary blurring.