This is the winter of everyone’s discontent. The left is angry about the demise of a sweeping overhaul of health care. The right is angry about the growth of Washington’s power. Democrats are angry at Republican intransigence. Republicans are angry at Democratic arrogance. Liberals think Barack Obama has left his progressive moorings. Conservatives think the president is a closet Communist.
This dyspepsia rumbles within the parties, too. The Democrats are divided between purists and pragmatists. The Republicans are divided between regulars and rebels.
The House doesn’t trust the Senate, either, and vice versa — always a factor in Washington, but moreso today — and virtually everybody harbors doubts about the president.
This national bad mood extends beyond the capital. The latest Rasmussen Reports poll found three out of four likely American voters at least somewhat angry at the government’s policies. Nearly one in two said they are very angry.
Ordinarily a president and a Congress of the same party have the same priorities. Then again, ordinarily the House speaker and the president have a basic working agreement. But just as Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. and President Jimmy Carter hardly ever saw eye to eye — they came from different worlds, one from the wards of Cambridge, the other from the peanut fields of Plains — Speaker Nancy D. Pelosi and President Obama seldom seem to read from the same hymnal.
The president wants a broad spending freeze, excluding defense. The speaker wants any freeze to include defense spending. In those two sentences is a world of difference, and none of the deference that a Democratic Congress customarily has for a Democratic president.
Members of Congress like to signal their independence from the executive branch; they’re jealous of their prerogatives and customarily cite article and section of the Constitution to buttress their claims. But this Congress seems to want to declare independence specifically from the Obama administration.
Then again, some members of Congress have even declared independence from Congress.
Last week’s declaration by Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh that he wouldn’t seek a third term stunned the political establishment. Here was a second-generation senator, a man bred to be a presidential aspirant by a father who himself was a presidential aspirant, someone whose entire adult life, from the office of secretary of state of Indiana to the governor’s mansion to two terms in Washington, had been in elected office, avowing that political life was empty and that Washington politics was corroded beyond repair.
In a speech full of poignant remarks, none was as chilling as this: “I was raised in a family that believes public service is the highest calling in the church, that what matters is not what you take from life, but what you give back. I believe that still.”
He received extraordinary attention for uttering an ordinary idea — that “Congress is not operating as it should” — and that there is “too much partisanship and not enough progress, too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving.” You can hear that critique on any radio station on the dial or in any coffee shop in the country. Hell, you can hear it at your own dinner table.
Or you can look at the latest Washington Post ABC News poll — you almost have to see figures like this with your own eyes to believe them — which showed that only about one in three Americans plan to vote to re-elect their representative in Congress.
All this suggests a political upheaval of massive proportions.
We thought we saw a political upheaval of massive proportions 15 months ago, when a center-right nation elected a black man with a liberal voting record to the presidency. Now even those who find former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska irritating are irritated that they can find some virtue in the cloying question she asked recently: “How’s that hopey-changey thing working out for ya?”
So in this environment it is not unreasonable to think that incumbents, at all levels of government but especially on Capitol Hill, could lose in percentages far larger than any that have been seen in a half-century or more.
Though we columnists write easily of political earthquakes, it is important to remember that in every election since 1954, at least 90 percent of House members who sought re-election have won another term. In some years, the re-election rate has been as high as 98 percent. Indeed, re-election has been so nearly automatic that DePauw University held a three-day conference to examine why elections were basically over before they were even held.
This year, retirements are running slightly above average, but it is possible that as many as 20 percent of congressional incumbents will be defeated, some in primaries, which ordinarily is almost unheard of, and others in general elections. Such a result would amount to a repudiation of the 2008 election, which itself was a repudiation of the 2004 election — and to a remarkable political phenomenon: There has never been a time when people voted for something that caused such widespread optimism and, then, such a swift onset of disappointment.
“The time period from euphoria to desperation,” says L. Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College, “is at an all-time short.” Welcome to a cranky country.
— David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.