Win­dow of GOP op­por­tu­nity?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Don­ald Lam­bro

Wors­en­ing dis­ap­proval scores for the Democrats in Congress have spawned par­ty­wide fears that voter alien­ation could give Repub­li­cans a chance to make a come­back in 2008. The Democrats’ tum­bling voter-ap­proval num­bers haven’t drawn much at­ten­tion on the nightly news shows, but they have stirred warn­ings in the party’s in­ner cir­cles and raised hopes among Repub­li­can strate­gists for the first time since last year’s elec­tion rout drove them from power.

A string of in­de­pen­dent polls in the past few weeks tells the story:

A na­tion­wide Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll found barely 33 per­cent of Amer­i­cans sur­veyed “ap­prove of the job per­for­mance of the Demo­cratic Congress.” Equally dis­turb­ing to Democrats, their party’s lead­er­ship “can claim just a 62 per­cent ap­proval score among Democrats.”

The Gallup Poll re­ported “that 55 per­cent of Amer­i­cans dis­ap­prove of Democrats in Congress.” Th­ese and other in­ter­nal polls have sent tremors through Demo­cratic ranks, and cam­paign strate­gists warn their party to start tak­ing them se­ri­ously be­fore it’s too late. “Democrats should not be for com­pla­cency in the face of lost trust in Congress and per­cep­tions that the new Congress is not ef­fec­tive or honor­ing its pledges,” party ad­vis­ers James Carville and Stan Green­berg warned in a midyear strat- egy memo to Demo­cratic lead­ers.

Repub­li­can num­bers are not any bet­ter. But the “Democrats should not rel­ish an in­creas­ingly alien­ated elec­torate on any grounds; in­creas­ing alien­ation from both par­ties can drive down turnout and cre­ate protest vot­ers look­ing for other ve­hi­cles for change,” the two said.

That points to fear of a third­party pres­i­den­tial can­di­dacy that could hurt Demo­cratic chances to win back the White House and un­der­mine their ten­u­ous hold on Congress — a fear no longer dis­missed by party lead­ers.

The testy po­lit­i­cal cli­mate can hurt both par­ties, they said. “The mood of the coun­try grows uglier [. . .] and the Demo­cratic Congress and lead­ers have lost some of the ear­lier glow; a 55 per­cent ma­jor­ity be­lieves Democrats have not made progress on their elec­tion pledges,” the memo said.

Un­til now, Democrats have blamed their de­clin­ing poll rat­ings on the party’s fail­ure to leg­is­late a troop-with­drawal dead­line in the Iraq war. “The Democrats are frus­trated. They want the war to end quicker than it ap­pears it will,” a se­nior party of­fi­cial told me.

But the finer polling data and re­ports from the party’s grass­roots base sug­gest voter angst runs deeper than that. They see a party en­gaged in venge­ful in­qui­si­tions against the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion that have yielded no ev­i­dence of wrong­do­ing, while poi­son­ing the po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere and sink­ing Congress deeper into leg­isla­tive grid­lock.

A wave of Demo­cratic in­ves­ti­ga­tions “cre­ates the per­cep­tion they are launch­ing witch-hunts,” said David Wasser­man, House elec­tions an­a­lyst at the Cook Po- lit­i­cal Re­port.

A Green­berg poll ac­com­pa­ny­ing the Carville-Green­berg memo noted omi­nously “that, faced with the cur­rent grid­lock, 12 per­cent want to vote for an in­de­pen­dent can­di­date for pres­i­dent or Congress, a fairly im­pres­sive base for an in­de­pen­dent can­di­dacy.” Worse, they added, “al­most a third of in­de­pen­dents are ready to re­spond in this way. The sit­u­a­tion in Wash­ing­ton does have con­se­quences, which is why Democrats have an obli­ga­tion to ad­dress the mood” that has alien­ated vot­ers.

The Democrats’ medi­ocre ap­proval rat­ings and restive po­lit­i­cal base have clearly buoyed Repub­li­can spir­its, par­tic­u­larly at the Na­tional Repub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee (NRCC).

“Such wide­spread dis­sat­is­fac­tion is cre­at­ing a pal­pa­ble sense of panic among Democrats,“ the NRCC crowed in a memo two weeks ago in re­sponse to the Carville-Green­berg warn­ings.

An NRCC in­ter­nal poll of likely vot­ers in 50 tar­geted Demo­cratic-held dis­tricts fu­els Repub­li­cans’ hopes they will ben­e­fit from Democrats’ trou­bles. It showed, among other things, that “vot­ers are not only frus­trated with the new ma­jor­ity’s in­abil­ity to get things done but that vot­ers are not at all loyal to their cur­rent Demo­crat mem­ber and are in a fir­ing mood.”

The poll found “only 35 per­cent of the vot­ers say they will vote to re-elect their cur­rent Demo­cratic con­gress­man in th­ese dis­tricts. Half — 50 per­cent — pre­fer some­one new.”

An­other bullish sign for the GOP, House can­di­date re­cruit­ment “is way up,” of­fi­cials told me.

Mr. Carville and Mr. Green­berg dis­agreed, cit­ing their own polling of 1,451 likely vot­ers July 25-30 in 35 key con­gres­sional dis­tricts that show their in­cum­bents hold­ing “dra­matic leads” over any Repub­li­can chal­lenger. But none of the polls may mean much un­til one can match real live can­di­dates against one an­other in the gen­eral elec­tion.

Clearly, con­gres­sional Democrats and their lead­ers have failed to meet the min­i­mum ex­pec­ta­tions of the vot­ers who elected them, as the latest poll num­bers at­test. This opens a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for Repub­li­cans and the White House to sharpen is­sues that will help strengthen their grass-roots sup­port and boost their share of in­de­pen­dent swing vot­ers who are up for grabs.

Still, Mr. Wasser­man thinks a lot will de­pend on how the Iraq war plays out and whether it will dwin­dle as an is­sue if, as ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have been say­ing, pre­lim­i­nary troop with­drawals be­gin next year. “We could see any­thing from a hand­ful of small gains for Repub­li­cans in the House or a hand­ful of Demo­cratic gains,” he said.

Don­ald Lam­bro, chief po­lit­i­cal correspondent of The Wash­ing­ton Times, is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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