By Robert Silvey
George Bush has done his workâ€”with a little help from Dick Cheney, as the Washington Post series this week has made clearâ€”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 presidentâ€”any Democratic candidateâ€”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 muchâ€”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):
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 preferencesâ€”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 2008â€”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.â€¦
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]