You can’t blame Democrats for feeling optimistic. In 2005, George W. Bush staggered through as rough a stretch as any modern president has experienced. From his botched response to Hurricane Katrina to mounting American casualties in Iraq, from his refusal to outlaw torture to revelations that he authorized no-warrant wiretapping in probable violation of the law, Bush is looking battered and vulnerable. Surely the Democrats can take advantage of that in 2006 by grabbing back one or both branches of Congress. Right?
Well, check back in 11 months — but don’t get your hopes up. Last week, as the furor over the wiretapping story was reaching a crescendo, the results of the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll were released. Believe it or not, they showed that the president’s approval rating had actually leaped up, from a Nixonesque 39 percent in early November to an anemic-but-definitely-breathing 47 percent.
How could this be? Bill Clinton — a Democrat who knows how to win — put it best. "When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody who’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right," Clinton said at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Unfortunately, there’s little question that many Americans today see Democrats as weak, if not necessarily right. And thank you, Nancy Pelosi and Jay Rockefeller, for reminding everyone of that when you whined pathetically about how you’ve been troubled by the wiretaps all along but didn’t think you could say anything.
Still, at both the national and state levels, 2006 is shaping up as the best opportunity the Democrats have had in a long time to make some significant gains. If the party is going to turn opportunity into success, though, it’s going to have to change its ways — and, so far, there’s little sign of that happening. Believing that 2006 will be a good year for the Democratic Party may not be completely irrational. But as Samuel Johnson once said, it amounts to the triumph of hope over experience.
Columnist Richard Reeves created a stir recently when he wrote that a survey of nearly 500 historians revealed that the overwhelming majority believed Bush was a failed president — and that 50 rated him as the worst ever. It turned out that the survey, conducted by the History News Network, was some 19 months old. But surely few of the historians who responded at that time could have since revised upward their opinion of the Bush presidency.
Yet despite all his failures and perverse policy priorities, Bush is unlikely to implode. Not only is Bush’s smear-and-fear spinning apparatus unparalleled, but he’s got Congress on his side, a situation that will likely remain unchanged after the November ’06 elections (see below). The religious right continues to be strongly in his corner — and that support may only intensify after a federal judge came down on the side of science and against creationism ... er, "intelligent design" — in a landmark public-school decision in Pennsylvania. Bush will probably survive his grotesque excesses on the national-security front because he’s been able to transform the federal judiciary into a presidential protection program. Samuel Alito, a reliable supporter of sweeping executive power, will provide him with additional insurance on the Supreme Court.
More than anything, though, the fate of the Bush presidency hinges on Iraq. Following another successful election and some nascent signs that American forces are finally figuring out how to defeat the insurgency, it appears that there are some reasons to be optimistic. The ravings of FOX News’s Sean Hannity aside, there isn’t a Democrat who wouldn’t like to see Iraq transform itself into a pro-Western bastion of stability and human rights. The consensus of expert opinion is that six months from now we’ll know a lot more than we do today.
Capturing the Senate in 2006 would appear to be an impossible goal for Democrats. Outnumbered by a margin of 55 to 45, the party would have to win 23 of the 33 seats that will be contested this November in order to get to 51.
Winning back the House for the first time since 1994 is, theoretically at least, more easily accomplished. With all 435 seats up for grabs every two years, a voter revolt against the Republicans could sweep minority leader Pelosi and company into the majority. There are problems, though.
Even though the Democrats need to increase their delegation by 16 to take back the House, the number of truly competitive House districts across the country has dropped from more than 100 to about 30 over the past dozen years, thanks to redistricting aimed at protecting incumbents of both parties. That means the playing field is a lot smaller than it appears.
Not that it couldn’t happen. The stench of corruption that has descended over congressional Republicans undermines their principal strength: the perception that they’re somehow more fiscally responsible than the Democrats. Former Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman, now a talk-show host with Bloomberg Radio, says voters may conclude that "we might as well have the pigs in the trough care about us instead of just the rich people." (Goldman’s program, Simply Put, can be heard on XM and Sirius satellite radios, from 7 to 9 pm and 10 pm to midnight.)
And winning back the House would matter. Not only could a Democratic House stop some of the Bush administration’s worst excesses (last week’s $40 billion in budget cuts, including student loans, comes to mind), but it could also order hearings into such matters as the White House’s deficient war planning, the wiretaps, the Valerie Plame matter, and the like. Katrina has already morphed into the scandal that the media forgot. Democratic hearings into the Bush administration’s mind-boggling negligence would remind the public that the White House is no better at rebuilding New Orleans than it was at rebuilding Fallujah. No doubt the Republicans would attempt to tar newly empowered Democrats as obstructionists. But if the public doesn’t like the things that the Democrats are obstructing, that would be all to the good.
AND THEY’RE OFF!
Already? Good grief. Yes, it’s true: 2006 will be a crucial year for those seeking to run for president in 2008. Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Republican who announced earlier this month that he wouldn’t seek reelection, has been campaigning for months.
Romney’s greatest hope — and potentially his biggest albatross — is the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. As the governor of a bordering state, Romney has a natural advantage over the rest of the field. Unfortunately for him, that advantage means he absolutely, positively has to win the Granite State in order to be a credible candidate. And New Hampshire already has a favorite Republican son: Arizona senator John McCain, who whipped Bush in 2000 only to fade badly once the campaign turned south.
James Pindell, managing editor of PoliticsNH.com, likens the prospect of a McCain-Romney battle to Survivor: "One candidate will have to be booted off the island."
On the Democratic side, Massachusetts senator John Kerry hasn’t stopped running since his narrow loss to Bush in November 2004. At this stage, though, the nomination appears to be New York senator Hillary Clinton’s for the taking — and it seems increasingly apparent that she’s taking. A cold-eyed observer may wonder how Hillary — perhaps the most divisive Democrat in the country — can win a single state that Kerry lost. But unless a dark horse such as Iowa governor Tom Vilsack or former Virginia governor Mark Warner can stop her, it looks as though we’re going to find out.
To access links related to this story, read it online at ThePhoenix.com. Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his weblog, Media Nation, at medianation.blogspot.com
Issue Date: December 30, 2005 - January 5, 2006
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