By Stuart Rothenberg
Spring has sprung in Washington, D.C., but not for Republicans. With the first quarter of 2007 now history, there is no evidence that President Bush has started to turn things around — or even that there are any reasonable prospects of him doing so.
Democrats have found two new issues to use against the White House: conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the firing of several U.S. attorneys. Even some Republicans are grumbling privately that their party failed to protect its prerogative of legislative oversight during the past few years, preferring instead to assume that the Bush administration had everything under control.
Some of that probably follows from a strongly partisan environment in the nation’s capital, which caused Republicans in Congress to see their major goals as enacting a legislative agenda and scoring points against Democrats. Given that mentality, aggressive oversight of a GOP administration would have appeared to Republican Congressional leaders only to have been playing into Democrats’ hands.
As it turns out, of course, the administration would have been better off in the long term if Congress — the Republican Congress — had been more aggressive in looking for errors of omission and of commission by the White House, instead of protecting the president by ignoring his administration’s performance.
That is a lesson Democrats might do well to consider, if they win the White House next year.
Democrats also should benefit from a likely expected presidential veto of the supplemental appropriations spending bill, assuming the parties don’t iron out their differences soon. Refusing to set a specific date to exit an unpopular war may well be the right thing to do, but politically it’s not a winner for the president or his party, since Democrats can portray him as intransigent.
National polling has not shown anything approaching a dramatic rebound in public opinion for Bush. His job ratings are about where they were before the midterm elections, even slightly lower, and voters aren’t more optimistic about the direction of the country. Congress’ job approval ratings have inched up, but, again, there is no evidence of a significant shift in opinion.
But isn’t this an equally serious problem for Democrats, since they control both branches of Congress? If voters still are dissatisfied with the direction of the country in October 2008, aren’t Democrats equally at risk as Republicans? No and no.
Bad news still falls primarily on Republicans, since the president remains the symbol of the government. Unless and until Republicans can find something to blame Democrats for, it’s hard to see how bad news hurts them very much.
Some political strategists argue that Democrats need to accomplish something between now and the next election to prove to voters that they can handle power and deserve their place in government. I’m skeptical of that view, as long as Democrats can demonstrate to voters’ satisfaction that they have tried to pass legislation only to be stymied either by Senate Republicans or the president.
In this regard, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her loyal followers can pass measures through the House, enabling Democrats to take credit for action even if legislation doesn’t make it into law.
In fact, Democrats might be better off trying to pass legislation but failing to do so because of Republican opposition. Yes, Republicans, at some point, would be able to talk about Democrats’ failings and their alleged inability to compromise with Republicans, but given Bush’s standing and the GOP’s current reputation, that’s a gamble Democrats should be willing to take.
Of course, House Democrats have to be able to push an inclusive agenda, and that means continuing to rein in their more ideological elements while still keeping their Blue Dogs in control. That won’t be easy, but it should be doable as the 2008 elections approach and Democrats of all stripes focus on retaining Congress and winning the White House.
If that happens, it may be difficult for party leaders to keep their more ambitious colleagues in line. As the vote on the supplemental spending bill in the House showed, 2008 is a very strong motivator for Democrats right now.
Moreover, Democrats still have the interesting immigration arrow in their quiver.
As a political issue, immigration continues to be a more contentious and divisive issue for Republicans than for Democrats. With the White House favoring a comprehensive approach and most GOP House Members (and many in the conservative grass roots) seeing such an approach as akin to amnesty, Democrats can use the issue later this year to divide Republicans.
A divided political party isn’t an appealing one to voters, and it’s easy to imagine the Republicans doing their imitation of a circular firing squad as they wrestle with immigration legislation.
With foreign policy, taxes and government spending no longer the winning issues they once were for Republicans, GOP strategists can’t count on a quick jujitsu move to turn the national agenda against Democrats. And that means more trouble ahead for Republicans, both this year and, quite possibly, into 2008.
Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.
Monday, April 16, 2007
By Stuart Rothenberg