Not since the height of the Gingrich revolution in 1995 have Republicans been as strong as they are now. President Bush has been more popular for more weeks than any president since they started taking presidential-approval polls — indeed, for longer than his top aides expected at the start of the war. Eighty-five percent of the public approves of the job Bush is doing, with about 60 percent “strongly” approving. People trust him over Democrats not just on foreign policy, but on economic policy. In a number of polls, his popularity is rubbing off on congressional Republicans. So the question on the minds of Republicans and Democrats alike is: Just how long will it last?
Polls come and go, and only a fool would try to predict where they’ll be this coming November, let alone in November 2004. But polls are not the only reason for Democrats to worry. And their situation could well get worse.
What drives Democrats crazy is that before September 11, they thought they had the Republicans where they wanted them: playing defense on health care, campaign-finance reform, and the environment. The recession was also bound to hurt the GOP.
When the attacks happened, Democrats were paralyzed — but only briefly. They quickly settled on the optimistic analysis of the war’s effects on politics: It wouldn’t have any. Democratic strategists James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and Bob Shrum wrote a memo saying that Democrats should support the president on the war while clobbering his party on domestic issues. It was these latter issues that would sway voters in the 2002 elections. And while Bush was popular, the public had “underlying doubts” that would eventually, with Democratic help, resurface. The 2001 elections, in which Republicans lost the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey, seemed to confirm this analysis.
Then a curious thing happened. At the very moment when the recession became impossible to ignore and the budget surplus vanished — the moment when Democrats expected to start scoring points — Bush moved decisively ahead of them in the polls about whom voters trust on economic and budgetary issues. Voters were willing to trust Bush with their pocketbooks, it turned out, as well as their lives. Nobody’s talking about “underlying doubts” any more.
Worse for the Democrats, it turned out that Bush was not going to ignore domestic issues while prosecuting a war — confounding their hopes that he would repeat his father’s mistake. In December, administration officials accused Tom Daschle of blocking the economic- stimulus bill for political reasons; somewhat surprisingly, a narrow majority of the public agreed with that complaint. In January, the president himself got into the fray when Daschle made a speech criticizing Bush’s tax cuts. Bush said he wouldn’t allow the Democrats to raise taxes by repealing some of his cuts. Several of Daschle’s Democratic colleagues, terrified of looking like tax-raisers, sided with Bush. The media, meanwhile, zinged Daschle because he wasn’t willing to say he would repeal Bush’s tax cuts. Daschle retreated.
Bush keeps coming out with new initiatives: One day it’s health care, the next the environment. As long as he does, it’s hard for Democrats to charge Republicans with indifference to domestic concerns. Republican strategist Ralph Reed compares Bush’s political achievement to Bill Clinton’s: “By the time we got to 1996, we [Republicans] had lost our advantages on taxes, welfare, and crime, and [Clinton] owned education. Now President Bush is moving similarly to own taxes and the military while negating traditional Democratic advantages on education and health care. That is a box I don’t think the Democrats can get out of.”
Many of the issues Democrats have left seem unlikely to help them. The economy appears to be recovering. Democrats are trying to make the deficit an issue, but it’s not much of a rallying cry. “You can’t eat or drink the deficit,” says Democratic political analyst Ruy Teixeira. “It doesn’t mean as much to people as it does to congressmen.” Moreover, Democrats who complain about the deficit have trouble explaining what they would do about it: raise taxes? cut defense spending? At a time when Democrats are already disunified — too many of them are thinking about running for president for them not to be — raising this issue only adds to the problem.
The Democrats have invested heavily in the Enron scandal — but like Enron’s employees, they don’t have much to show for their investment. A mid-February Gallup poll asked whether voters thought “the problems associated with Enron” involved mostly the Republican party, or both parties “about equally.” Twenty percent fingered Republicans, while 65 percent said both parties. The public is much more likely to suspect congressional Democrats of improper behavior toward Enron than to fault Bush.
Under the circumstances, Democrats will almost certainly feel compelled to hammer Republicans on entitlements with even more vigor than usual. Here they may actually be able to make some headway — especially if Republicans go wobbly under the attack. Democrats might even be able to eke out a decent result in November based on better organization and factors peculiar to individual races.
But what Democrats should really dread is that the war will become an issue in the November elections. The conventional wisdom continues to be that it won’t. The Democrats are still taking every opportunity to say that they support Bush on the war — an approach that shields them from danger but, it’s worth noting, doesn’t do anything to build up their own credibility on the issue. But what if we invade Iraq? A lot of Democratic congressmen and senators would be viscerally opposed, and many of their supporters would be too. Polls, on the other hand, have shown strong support for toppling Saddam ever since September 11.