Discredited government and the 2008 election

By Robert Silvey

George Bush has done his work—with a little help from Dick Cheney, as the Washington Post series this week has made clear—and he has almost certainly changed the political landscape for decades. His arrogance and incompetence have so thoroughly discredited the Republican Party that Democrats start the 2008 races with a huge advantage. Most Americans are now ready to vote for a Democratic candidate for president—any Democratic candidate—and to solidify the party’s control of Congress.

But one troubling factor remains: In the process of discrediting his party and conservative policies, Bush has also, in the eyes of many voters, discredited government of any stripe. While Iraq, New Orleans, and a hundred other scandals all happened under Bush’s watch, some voters interpret these failures to mean that we can’t trust government to do anything right. Democratic government, Republican government, it doesn’t matter that much—by this
reading they’re all inefficient, feckless, and self-serving. You know, politicians, they’re all just politicians. And that’s a reading Republicans would like to encourage.

But for the moment, more mud is sticking to Bush and his friends. Voters’ favorable views of the Democratic Party have grown especially rapidly in the last few months, as shown in this graph of Democracy Corps polls (with warm feelings toward the party in red, cool in yellow):

Democratic favorability

Young Americans in particular are disenchanted with Bush and his party, according to this week’s New York Times poll. Among voters age 17 to 29, 54 percent plan to vote for a Democrat in 2008, and only 28 percent approve of Bush’s job performance. It’s not just that young voters have strong party preferences—they also favor progressive policies. The poll shows they support abortion rights and gay marriage, they have a more welcoming stance toward immigrants than older Americans, and “62 percent said they would support a universal, government-sponsored national health care insurance program.” That’s good news for Democrats in 2008—and probably well beyond, since people tend to establish their voting patterns when young and change very little as they age.

Democracy Corps has also conducted a new survey of battleground races in the 70 congressional districts likely to determine control of the House of Representatives next year, and the results are surprisingly positive. Stan Greenberg and his pollsters write:

Democratic congressional candidates in this named ballot hold on average a 9-point lead in these districts that actually supported the Republican candidate by 1 point in 2006 and President Bush by 8 points in 2004. That means the center of the battlefield has shifted as much since 2006 as it did in the lead up to it.

If Democrats hold on to that lead through November 2008, they will retain almost every one of their House seats and probably gain a significant number of Republican seats. That’s a big if, of course. Many events will intervene, possibly even another 9/11-scale attack, and it’s not easy to predict how Americans would react to that, whether they would blame the Bushites for more FEMA-like incompetence or, as in 2001, rally round the leader.

For the moment, Iraq looms over everything. To escape the charge that all politicians are incompetent, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi must peel off enough GOP votes to achieve some visible movement there in the next few months, removing troops and beginning to wind down the war. There are some hopeful signs in the latest comments by senators Lugar and Voinovich. Domestic issues, too, may turn out to be more important than in 2006, especially since the rightward march of the Roberts Supreme Court calls for legislative countermeasures from Congress. But Democratic majorities are slim, and Bush still wields the veto pen, so it’s entirely possible that Reid and Pelosi may be able to accomplish very little. As Greenberg writes in The American Prospect:

In all likelihood, we are going to have a year of gridlock going into the presidential election, which will only increase voters’ frustration with government. The longer people see their real problems going unaddressed by the two main parties, the greater the likelihood that the electorate will fragment, and an independent and anti-politics candidate will emerge.

In any case, Democrats cannot rely on hatred of Republicans as their sole winning strategy. They must also restore voters’ faith in the ability of government to solve problems, to work properly again as a means of implementing progressive programs. As Greenberg puts it:

In their breathtaking incompetence and comprehensive failure in government, Republicans have undermined Americans’ confidence in the ability of government to play a role in solving America’s problems. Democrats will not make sustainable gains unless they are able to
restore the public’s confidence in its capacity to act through government.…

The problem — the very substantial problem — is that conservatives have failed in ways that have undermined Americans’ sense of collective capacity. Their failure has communicated not just their own incompetence, but also the message that government in general is incompetent. By failing so dramatically, conservatives have created a significant roadblock for Democrats: They have undermined people’s faith in the very instrument that we as progressives want to use to solve problems.

The 2008 election may come to represent a sea change in American politics, a return to government for the people rather than for the corporation. But that change is far from certain, whatever the polls say today.

[Cross-posted at Rubicon]

Categories: Politics/Law/Government

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5 replies »

  1. George Walker Bush is the “typhoid Mary” of the GOP. How many GOP
    cadidates last election asked the President to come and do a fund
    raiser or a speech for them? Yeah, damned few. And, those who did
    or backed his policies became unemployed. Those rash enough support Bush and help him shove this imiigration reform bill up We
    The People’s asses had better start working on a resume beacuse
    they are history next time they run too.
    The nightmare will be over in about eighteen months. I am already shopping for the best bottle of Kentucky bourbon I can find to celebrate the grand day that George Walker Bush is no longer in

  2. It’s sort of funny, actually – I started telling my conservative friends as far back as 2002 that they needed to begin revolting against Bush because he posed a greater threat to the GOP than anybody the Democrats could even dream of throwing up. It doesn’t look like he’s going to put them completely out of business, as I suggested was an outside possibility, but he’s handed the Dems two houses of Congress and if the current trends on the war and Republican scandals continue they’ll have the White House here shortly, as well (the only thing that can keep that from happening right now is, of course, the Dems’ own ineptitude).

    None of them would listen to me, of course….

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  4. Robert,

    there are two statements in your wonderful essay that reall resonate for me:

    “Domestic issues, too, may turn out to be more important than in 2006, especially since the rightward march of the Roberts Supreme Court calls for legislative countermeasures from Congress.”

    This stacked Supreme Court will wreak havoc over the next two decades. Unless the Dems (or some other party, he said hopefully) can gather a legislative majority strong enough to balance them, I’m afraid we’re in for a very bad time.

    “The problem

  5. This is a great post. What on earth did conservatives expect, electing a man who runs on a platform of government being inherently bad? Did they think they’d get someone who would run it well and prove himself wrong?

    The Democrats have an amazing opportunity to really explain their beliefs and offer a new course for America, and not just run as Republican-lite. If they do that, they could form a progressive majority that would be hard to defeat for a long, long time.