Thursday, March 02, 2006

Is the Public’s Mood on Automatic Pilot Until the Fall?

By Stuart Rothenberg

It’s the end of February, still more than eight months before November’s midterm elections. That’s an eternity in politics, and it’s one reason why Republicans remain optimistic that they can turn public opinion more in their favor than it is now.

But on issue after issue, public opinion seems to have solidified against President Bush, and there is shrinking reason to believe that Bush’s standing will improve before November.

That means GOP prospects for holding the House and avoiding an electoral bath depend almost entirely on localizing elections. Given the public’s unambiguous dissatisfaction with the president, Congress and the direction of the country, that, too, seems increasingly unlikely.

Just when you think Bush has an opportunity to turn things around, another issue surfaces to pose a problem for the White House and the GOP. If Vice President Cheney isn’t shooting somebody, a foreign corporation based in the Middle East is taking over management of the nation’s port facilities.

Of course, neither of these events are all that newsworthy: The Cheney incident was a media process story and the port facilities issue is less a story about U.S. security or the war against terrorism and more of a drummed-up controversy created by politicians to score political points and, in turn, mined by cable news networks to draw viewers. But both caught the media’s attention and put the White House on the defensive.

Polling tells a sad story for the GOP. Bush’s job rating is in the low 40s, and the public is equally unhappy about the president’s handling of Iraq, health care, immigration, taxes, the federal budget deficit and the economy — even though the U.S. economy is in relatively good shape.

Even Bush’s handling of the terrorism issue has plunged, despite the fact that we haven’t seen a development so dramatic that it would automatically cause his credibility on the issue to tank.

People aren’t making significant distinctions between Bush’s performance on various issues, which makes it more difficult for the White House to change public attitudes on any single measure of Bush’s job performance.

Americans, or at least many Americans, now assume the worst about the president. They interpret events through the lens of pessimism. Good news, such as the state of the economy, is not appreciated, and bad news is not merely bad, it’s catastrophic.

So, for Bush, this public mood is disastrous since it means that Americans are not in any mood to receive good news or re-evaluate their hardening assumptions about the current administration or the GOP.

All of this has ominous ramifications for the GOP in the fall. While National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) continues to insist that Republicans will do well because they know how to run good campaigns and have demonstrated their ability to localize elections, you need to go back at least to 1982 to find an environment that is close to as bad as the current one for the GOP.

“Blocking and tackling” — a phrase Reynolds likes to use to describe the fundamentals of campaigns — may well produce victories in a neutral political environment or a favorable one, but it can’t stop a wave. That’s what makes waves different from other elections. Candidates win because of their party label, even though they haven’t raised enough money or run good enough campaigns.

Of course, we don’t yet know how big the Democratic wave will be in November. And actually, I’m convinced that current ballot test numbers understate Republican strength at the moment.

For example, while a recent poll in Kentucky’s 4th district by the Democratic firm Cooper & Secrest shows incumbent Geoff Davis (R) trailing former Rep. Ken Lucas (D) by 10 points in a ballot test, I’m betting that when voters start to focus on November, Republican numbers will inch up at least a few points, as partisan juices start to boil.

Still, it looks increasingly unlikely that Republicans can alter the public’s overall mood, barring a dramatic event, such as the capture or death of Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who has become a top American target. Only a truly dramatic event is likely to force Americans to reassess their view of the president and of the nation’s direction.

And remember, not all dramatic events work toward the president’s advantage. Hurricane Katrina was not only a botched government response but a huge missed opportunity for the Bush administration to rally the country around a cause and re-establish some trust with the American people.

The situation in Iraq doesn’t seem likely to improve enough between now and November to help the president’s standing, and Congress isn’t likely to do anything significant enough to change the public mood. Barring a dramatic event that no one can now predict — and unexpected things do seem to happen just when you don’t expect them — what you see now in the way of mood is pretty much what you can expect in the fall.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 27, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.