The badger in the Bush

There is some badger in George W. Bush. Or is it some wolf? Those thoughts raced through my mind as I listened to the president’s State of the Union speech last week. Someone, somewhere was conducting a focus group about the speech, I mused, and it brought back memories of work I did in the 1990s for Michigan Gov. John Engler’s reelection bid.

There is some badger in George W. Bush. Or is it some wolf? 

Those thoughts raced through my mind as I listened to the president’s State of the Union speech last week.

Someone, somewhere was conducting a focus group about the speech, I mused, and it brought back memories of work I did in the 1990s for Michigan Gov. John Engler’s reelection bid.

As Bush is now pushing for changes in a long-established Social Security system, Engler had then been pushing for changes in his state’s legacy tax-and-spend policies. Also like Bush, Engler was a polarizing figure who drove many Democrats nuts. So focus-group participants knew any remark about Engler’s policy initiatives would cause critics and defenders to erupt into frighteningly bombastic volleys back and forth across the table, prompting many to just sit and stare rather than risk becoming involved. So I started exploring for alternative ways to discuss the governor.

I looked into the techniques of market researchers and found that they often use what are known as “projective techniques” to guide discussions of a product. Two examples of this approach caught my fancy. One was to discuss products as cars. Say, for example, if Pepsi were not a cola but instead were an automobile, what brand would it be? Because Michigan is the auto state, I figured that would be perfect.

The other projective technique I discovered seemed at first maybe a little goofy. It called for asking focus-group participants to describe products as animals. If Pepsi were a dog instead of a cola, which breed would it be? If Pepsi and Coke were either a poodle or a boxer, which one would be the poodle and which one the boxer, and why? Discuss.

If you are giggling right now, or even smiling, you get the point. This is a disarmingly simple (or goofy) way to make people relax and think about a subject in an entirely different way. Voters discussing a political figure are forced to abandon typically empty TV and radio talk-show rhetoric. And, most important, projection causes voters to dig deeper into their psyches to drag out some ideas and opinions. It moves political discussions past the superficial level in a fun way.

With Engler, we first tried the car exercise, but it faltered because he had campaigned so prominently in an old Oldsmobile. Few could envision him as anything else. It had taken over his persona. But when we went to the animal exercise, things really took off.

At first, there was some nervous laughter. But as a few participants ventured some ideas, we began digging deeper into the governor’s imagery. The groups focused on the image of Engler as a badger.

I recently read these descriptions of badgers that capture the views I heard that night about Engler: “extraordinary physical and emotional strength; tenacious approach to challenges; their powerfully built bodies and dominating personalities back down to no one; (they) confidently enter the territory of others — woe betide anyone who blocks their path.”

What I discovered was that voters, even Democrats, saw Engler’s unwillingness to back down as his greatest strength and asset. His personality was appealingly unique in this way, setting him apart from the typical go-along-to-get-along politician. Even those who disagreed with his policies admired and applauded his unafraid advocacy of his agenda.

I think Bush is a badger, too. The simple act of touching the “third rail” of American politics will become a signature part of his political legacy, regardless of the success or failure of his efforts. And he is most likely to gain success by “backing down to no one,” especially poodle Democrats.

A website devoted to similar discussions (www.animalinyou.com) says that Bush as well as Bill and Hillary Clinton are wolves, Newt Gingrich is a warthog, Teddy Roosevelt was a bear, Jimmy Carter was a beaver, and Bob Dole and Al Gore are both bisons. Think. Discuss. Enjoy. Smile.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.