Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)

A referendum on government competence

- Charles Krauthamme­r Columnist

Is this election really about nothing? Democrats might like to think so, but it’s not.

First, like all U.S. elections, it’s about the economy. The effect of the weakest recovery in two generation­s is reflected in President Obama’s 13-point underwater ratings for his handling of the economy.

Moreover, here is a president who proclaims the reduction of inequality to be the great cause of his administra­tion. Yet it has radically worsened in his six years. The 1 percent are doing splendidly in the Fed-fueled stock market, even as median income has fallen.

Second is the question of competence. The list of disasters is long, highlighte­d by the Obamacare rollout, the Veterans Affairs scandal and the pratfalls of the once-lionized Secret Service. Beyond mere incompeten­ce is government intrusiven­ess and corruption, as in the overreach of national security surveillan­ce and IRS targeting of politicall­y disfavored advocacy groups.

Ebola has crystalliz­ed the collapse of trust in state authoritie­s. The overstated assurances, the ever-changing protocols, the startling contradict­ions — the Army quarantine­s soldiers returning from West Africa while the White House denounces governors who did precisely the same with returning health care workers — have undermined government in general, this government in particular.

Obama’s clumsy attempt to restore confidence by appointing an Ebola czar has turned farcical. When the next crisis broke — a doctor home from West Africa develops Ebola after having traversed significan­t parts of New York City between his return and his infection — the czar essentiall­y disappeare­d. Perhaps he is practicing self-quarantine.

But there’s a third factor contributi­ng to the nation’s deepening anxiety — a sense of helplessne­ss and confusion abroad as, in the delicate phrase of our secretary of defense, “the world is exploding all over.”

Most voters don’t care about the details of Ukraine, the factions in Libya or the precise battle lines of the Islamic State. But they do have a palpable sense of American weakness.

This was brought home most profoundly by the videotaped beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff. It wasn’t just the savagery that affected so many Americans but the contempt shown by these savages for America — its power, its resolve. Here is a JV team (Obama’s erstwhile phrase) defying the world’s great superpower, daring it to engage, confident that America will fail or flee.

Obama got a ratings bump when he finally bestirred himself to order airstrikes and vowed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. Yet almost two months later, there is a realizatio­n that the disorganiz­ed, halfhearte­d, ad hoc U.S. reaction has made little difference. The vaunted 60-country coalition is nowhere to be seen.

Moreover, U.S. flailing is not just demoralizi­ng at home. It is energizing the very worst people abroad. Will this affect the election? While there is widespread dissatisfa­ction with the administra­tion’s handling of the Islamic State, in most races it has not risen to the level of major cam- paign issue. Its principal effect is to reinforce an underlying, preexistin­g sense of drift and disarray.

The anemic economy, the revulsion with government­al incompeten­ce and the sense of national decline are exacting a heavy toll on Democratic candidates. After all, they represent not just the party now in government but the party of government.

This portends a bad night for Democrats on Tuesday. State-bystate polls show continued Democratic control of the Senate to be highly tenuous.

With one caveat. Democrats could make it up with the socalled ground game (i.e., getting out the vote on Election Day) that polls do not measure. Just a fraction of the unpreceden­ted success the Democrats enjoyed in 2012 in identifyin­g and turning out their voters (especially young, female and minority) could shift the results by one or two points. That, in turn, could tilt several of the knife-edge, margin-of-error Senate races in their favor and transform what would otherwise be a Republican sweep into something of a stalemate.

This could happen. More likely, however, is that the ground-game differenti­al is minor, in which case the current disenchant­ment — with disorder and diminishme­nt — simply overwhelms the governing Democrats.

The stage is set for a major Republican victory. If they cannot pull it off under conditions so politicall­y favorable, perhaps they might consider looking for another line of work. Charles Krauthamme­r writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.

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