Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The perils of being in charge

At the moment, the odds of the GOP taking back the House and Senate in 2008 are roughly equivalent to Lindsay Lohan's job prospects at a driver’s ed school.

Nevertheless, the Republicans in Washington will try their best to rally their base voters, and sway swing voters, by painting the majority Democrats as stewards of a “do-nothing Congress.” The Republicans are also testing the phrase “post office Congress,” which suggests that the ruling congressional party has done little except pass a dozen bills to rename various post offices. And loyal grassroots Republicans are heartened by the latest polls, which report that the Democratic Congress is nearly as unpopular as the GOP’s albatross in the White House; for instance, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that, on the eve of Congress’ August recess, only 37 percent of Americans applaud its job performance. Other polls have pegged that number lower.

The record certainly shows that the Democrats have failed to force President Bush to change course in Iraq; and, at this writing, the Democrats have only been able to enact two of the six priorities they announced last winter (a minimum wage hike, and 9/11 domestic security reforms), with the others stuck in the Senate machinery. Moreover, a Democratic survey firm having recently conducted focus groups in two swing congressional districts, announced yesterday in a report that voters there are disappointed with the Democrats on Capitol Hill: “Optimism for the new Congress is quickly waning. Many voters still express a wait-and-see attitude, but most have now returned to the same concerns we heard last year,” prior to the ’06 elections, when the Republicans were in charge.

The Democratic firm, led by pollster Stan Greenberg, sketched the voter complaints about the Democratic Congress: “accomplishing nothing, career politicians just trying to get re-elected, do nothing but argue with each other, lobbyists, wasteful, paid too much money, and, most of all, out of touch.”

All told, “Democrats in Congress are given credit for wanting change and most especially for ensuring that Bush no longer has a blank check from Congress. But in most voters’ minds, it boils down to results; good intentions and legitimate finger-pointing aside, things simply haven’t changed under Democratic control,” which explains “the rapid return of record low approval marks for Congress.”

So it would appear that, for the Democratic politicians who long yearned to be back in charge, this is a classic case of “be careful what you wish for.” And it would seem to suggest that the congressional GOP is poised for an ’08 comeback.

But not so fast. Remember the Lindsay Lohan rule.

The public is ticked at the Democrats, but they’re more ticked at Bush and his supine Capitol Hill enablers. The polling evidence suggests that voters are disenchanted with the Democratic Congress primarily because it has not done enough to thwart a president who is widely perceived as a failure. Unlike in 1980 or 1994, when congressional Democrats were punished at the polls because the electorate was more in sync with the GOP, this time congressional Democrats have the electorate on their side. They are mainly being faulted for failing to take the fight to the party that was already rebuked in 2006 and seems poised to be rebuked again in 2008.

The “internals” of the Post-ABC poll sketch the prevailing mood. Congress’ overall approval rating is 37 percent, but the Republicans (who have been filibustering Senate bills at a record rate) seem to get more of the blame. When asked to assess the congressional GOP’s performance, 34 percent say thumbs up, and 64 percent say thumbs down. The Democrats’ numbers are 46 percent positive, and 51 percent negative.

In past decades, congressional Democrats have often suffered politically because, especially on foreign policy, they were widely viewed as “out of the mainstream,” a synonym for “too far to the left.” That’s not the case today. The mainstream position in America is antiwar, and the congressional Democrats are being faulted for not servicing that view. In the Post-ABC poll, 62 percent of Americans said that Congress should have the “final say” in deciding when to withdraw troops from Iraq; only 31 percent said that Bush should have final say. More broadly, 55 percent said they trusted the congressional Democrats to do a better job in Iraq; only 32 percent cited Bush. Lastly, a 49 percent plurality said that the Democrats had done “too little” to prod Bush on Iraq.

But perhaps the Democratic firm’s focus groups are most instructive. Greenberg chose two congressional districts - in upstate New York, and Illinois – where Republican moderates won close House elections in 2006. All the participants were swing voters; they aired their aforementioned gripes about the congressional Democrats. And when they were shown a positive TV ad that boasted about the Democrats’ success in passing a minimum wage hike, they were unimpressed, viewing that achievement as insufficient.

But then the Democratic firm tested a negative, anti-Bush message – and the participants loved it. This was the message: “President Bush has vetoed bills to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq and to allow greater stem cell research. He has also promised to veto Democratic bills already passed by the House and Senate to lower student loan rates, implement homeland security recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, expand health coverage for uninsured children, and allow Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.”

The reaction, according to the firm’s report: “This message fundamentally shifted the debate in the groups, with voters wondering why Democrats weren’t including those facts in their advertising, and expressing shock that (congressional) Republicans are continuing to support President Bush and to defend his vetoes. In their eyes, Bush is a failure whose term can’t end soon enough and there is no explanation for why Republicans in Congress would continue to support him and his failed policies, whether in Iraq or here at home. As one woman in Illinois asked rhetorically after hearing this message, ‘Are you going to stay with Bush, or are you going to get with the people?’”

Naturally, some GOP partisans will simply dismiss this report out of hand, citing Greenberg’s political leanings. But they ignore these warnings at their peril, because they are evident elsewhere as well.

For instance, it tells us plenty, about the current political mood, that incumbent Senate Republican Norm Coleman, who is up for re-election in Minnesota, raised less money in the second quarter of 2007 than his potential Democratic challenger…Al Franken. When a seasoned politician and Bush loyalist like Norm Coleman is leading an untested TV comedian by only seven points in a Survey USA poll (a drop from 22 points last winter), the GOP might want to interpret that as a general sign of trouble.