Monday, March 08, 2010

Good News Is Hard to Find for Democrats as Spring Begins

By Stuart Rothenberg

With a nearly 80-seat House majority, 60 seats in the Senate for more than eight months, a GOP brand so damaged that the party looked completely incompetent and a charismatic African-American president taking over from a failed two-term Republican president, you’d have thought that Democrats were set up for a pretty decent two years.

But only one year after the passage of the economic stimulus that was advertised as the first step to revitalizing the American economy and getting Americans back to work, the outlook for November is increasingly troubling for Democrats.

Democrats are headed for big losses in the House and Senate, but the Obama administration and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill continue to plow ahead on health care reform instead of successfully pivoting to jobs and the economy.

The economic news generally is depressing for Democrats. Recent data on seasonally adjusted first-time unemployment claims and on new housing starts offer no reason for optimism, so it’s not surprising that two measures of consumer sentiment, the ABC News Consumer Comfort Index and the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Survey, declined sharply recently.

Democrats have botched their top legislative priority — health care reform — in so many ways that there is plenty of blame to go around. Yes, they may pass a comprehensive bill, but at a steep cost.

The White House failed to give Congress enough direction on policy, letting each chamber chew over the issue until a wide gap existed between the House and Senate bills.

Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was too interested in laying down a liberal marker from which to negotiate and too sensitive to the concerns of her senior Members, all of whom represent safe seats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the other major player, seemed deaf to his chamber’s political realities.

Of course the party’s most ideological wing wanted a “robust” public insurance option, higher taxes on the wealthy and abortion-friendly legislation. But it was up to Democratic leaders to bring the base along at some point during 2009. If that had happened, Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) upset victory in January would not have mattered.

And now, you can add to the list of Democratic problems an ethics panel admonishment of House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, the powerful New York Democrat who has given up his gavel, at least temporarily.

Democrats don’t have a monopoly on public corruption or personal scandal, as anyone who has lived through the past decade knows. For every former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), there is a South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R). For every former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), there is a former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).

The problem for Democrats, of course, is that they ran against the “culture of corruption” just a couple of cycles ago, so the admonishment of Rangel, combined with questions about other Democratic Members, scandals surrounding two consecutive Democratic governors of New York and the upcoming trial of a former Democratic governor of Illinois, create an impression that Democrats could do without.

Fairly or not, Democratic control of both chambers of Congress during a period of voter disenchantment enhances the chance that voters will punish Democrats for any shortcoming, legislative or ethical.

Finally, there is the president, whose job approval and favorable numbers have plummeted since his election.

Of course President Barack Obama’s 75 percent job approval numbers in December 2008 didn’t measure anything but Americans’ hope for success. But it’s the rise in his disapproval ratings from the mid-20s in early March 2009 to the mid-40s now that ought to be troubling for Democratic strategists.

Historical survey data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research show that the job approval of each of the last eight presidents has fallen between January and October of midterm election years (based on the average from all polls conducted during those months), and if that trend continues, it obviously creates additional problems for Democratic candidates.

Even more troubling for Democratic strategists is the drastic change in the attitude of independents, from virtually mirroring the sentiments of Democrats during the last two election cycles to now more closely resembling the views of Republicans (on both mood and issues).

Unfortunately for Democrats, passing legislation between now and November isn’t likely to change the political landscape nationally, though it could close the enthusiasm gap by energizing Democratic voters who have been disappointed by the Obama administration’s performance.

Republicans are not likely to change their views of the president and the Congress before the midterms, and the opinions (and political behavior) of independents and weak Democrats are much more likely to be tied to their perceptions of the economy and the job market than to whether Congress passes a particular piece of legislation.

Still, Democratic leaders from the White House to Congress have to do anything they can to alter the trajectory of the 2010 elections, and with eight months to go until Election Day, almost anything is possible. But the one thing Obama and Congressional Democrats need is some good news.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on on March 4, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.