Wednesday, February 10, 2010

As Democrats Founder, Republicans Rise

The first paragraph of the story on the new Washington Post/ABC News poll paints the picture "Republicans have significantly narrowed the gap with Democrats on who is trusted to deal with the country's problems and have sharply reduced several of President Obama's main political advantages..."

According to the poll, on issue after issue, Republicans have wiped away the Democrats once sizeable advantage, a "year ago, Democrats held a 26-point advantage on dealing with the big issues; that lead is now six points. At the one-month mark, Obama's lead over the Republicans on dealing with the economy was 35 points; it's now five points."

The poll does offer some very telling bits "The GOP's image has improved since last year, but a majority of poll respondents still see the party in an unfavorable light (52 percent unfavorable, 44 percent favorable)."

The Republican party has gained on Obama and the Democrats, they are tied with the Democrats on the generic ballot - yet 52% of Americans view them unfavorably. What that tells me is that Americans have simply soured on the Democrats, that after one year with sizeable majorities in the House and Senate and control of the White House Americans are once again asking - can Democrats govern? It's the same question that was asked under Jimmy Carter and answered in 1980 and asked under Bill Clinton and answered in 1994. A question that is likely to be similarly answered in 2010 in a dramatic electoral repudiation.

Pundits like Jacob Weisberg at Salon may think that this is all the fault of the "childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large" but it is becoming increasing clear that the true fault may well rest with the stunning incompetence of the Democratic party leadership. Likewise, Norm Ornstein, co-author of one of the best books ever written about Congress, has tried to argue that the Democratic Congress has been "very productive" and he cites the stimulus bill passed in February of 2009 as evidence as well as passage of a "credit card holders' bill of rights" - I'm certain we'll be teaching our children about that one... He then adds to the list a host of bills that have been passed by the House of Representatives - Cap and Trade, Health Reform, Financial Regulatory Reform - but this is not the Nebraska state legilslature. We still have two houses of Congress and passing a bill in one house that has no hope of emerging from the other house is not a sign of productivity - rather it is evidence of gross incongruity.

Be clear, Republicans aren't winning based on their new and exciting ideas, they're winning because the Democrats seem so totally incapable of governing - and it's a story that is becoming all too familiar. The Democrats have been engaged in a 40 year search for their collective soul since a party civil war forced Lyndon Johnson from the ticket in 1968 (as well as national security liberals and eventually southern states from the party). Since that time the party has seen its share of registered voters fall from a lofty high of 51% to its present level of roughly 35%. Generational loyalties, residual socialization effects from the New Deal coalition, and the public backlash against Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon provided the party with a advantage that helped them maintain control of the House of Representatives until 1995. Between 1965 and 1973 Democrats suffered a net loss of 53 House seats, before winning 49 in the aftermath of the Nixon resignation. In the Senate they lost 12 seats between 1965 and 1973, before reclaiming 4 post-Watergate. The election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 presented the party with its first chance at unified government in 8 years. By the end of Carter’s only term the party had lost 15 seats in the Senate and control of the chamber and 50 seats in the House.

Democrats were out of the White House until the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, and within 2 years of unified government Democrats lost 54 seats in the House, 8 seats in the Senate, and control of both chambers. They would not reclaim control until 2007. With the election of Barack Obama Democrats achieved unified government again in 2009 – Democrats hold 255 House seats and 57 Senate seats (plus two Independents) – this is nearly identical to the majorities that they held when Bill Clinton assumed office in 1993. At the moment, Democrats appear headed for a 2010 very much like 1994. Charlie Cook rates 60 House races as competitive and 50 of the 60 are Democratic seats (Republicans need a net gain of 40 seats to reclaim the House) and analysts are increasingly seeing the Senate as being in play – current estimates are the Republicans would gain 7 Senate seats if the election were held now. Can losses by Democrats be attributed simply to normal party losses during midterms? Not really, historically the party in the White House experiences the worse losses during their sixth year, not the second year. In 1982 Republicans did lose seats in the House, but their Senate majority was untouched and they rallied back in the House in 1984 reclaiming more than half of the seats lost in 1982. In 2002 Republicans gained seats in the House and Senate, a feat repeated in 2004. Though Republicans have had fewer years of unified government, they have proven more adept at maintaining it. Since 1968 every instance of unified Democratic government has been met with either the loss of Congress or the loss of the White House within 4 years. Democrats need to figure out why they cannot convince the public to trust them with the reins - it may be that so long as the Democratic party remains unclear as to just what it stands for, the public will be uncertain as well and that does not inspire confidence.

In his re-nomination acceptance speech in 2004 George W. Bush said "You may not agree with me, but you know where I stand." Much the same can be said of the Republican Party - they may be the party of No, but at least they are consistent. Such a statement could not be uttered by Barack Obama, nor could it be ascribed to the Democratic Party. A public option? Maybe/ Maybe not. A discretionary spending freeze? Maybe/Maybe not. Cap and Trade? Maybe/Maybe not. Wall Street Bonuses? Maybe/Maybe not. Tax Cuts for Business? Maybe/Maybe not. Agree or disagree, voters like to know where their elected leaders stand - Democrats have about 6 months to try and figure that out for themselves... after 40 years of searching.