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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.