Plenty of people are driving cars they don’t want or, worse still, living in homes they can’t afford. That’s a natural part of a consumer society, especially during a recession. But this fall we may witness a mass example of buyers’ remorse in the political world.
Over the years we have constructed shock absorbers to insulate politics from such jolts. Gubernatorial terms, for example, generally lasted only one year in 1780 — but gradually grew to two years and now, with the exception of New Hampshire and Vermont, are four years long.
But the House of Representatives was built with two-year terms for a reason: to be the barometer that measures both the pressures on the public and the pressures exerted by the public. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, James Madison favored a three-year term, but the delegates settled on two years, in part, as Roger Sherman of Connecticut was quoted in the official notes of the proceedings, to assure that the representatives would not “acquire the habits of the (capital) which might differ from those of their constituents.”
Today, virtually no Democrat feels comfortable and confident in his House seat, especially since a Gallup poll of congressional voting preferences released the other day showed Republicans with a 10-point lead — the largest in the 68 years in which the organization has tracked midterm elections. It is double the gap the Republicans had as they headed into the 1994 elections, when they captured both houses of Capitol Hill for the first time in four decades.
Better still for the GOP: The poll shows Republicans twice as likely as their rivals to be “very” enthusiastic about voting, which underlines Republicans’ customary practice of turning out at higher rates than Democrats. It’s hard to find any good news for the Democrats in the political climate right now.
Indeed, it’s not just that the president, along with his poll ratings, has fallen to earth. It is not a coincidence that the Republicans are pillorying House Speaker Nancy D. Pelosi in districts from coast to coast and in Senate races in Pennsylvania, Florida and California. She has become one of the chief Republican punching bags and fundraising assets, supplanting Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who died 53 weeks ago.
There are indications that, along with the president, the major factors in several congressional races are two women — Pelosi and former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. Palin was a critical element in the Republican primary defeat of Sen. Lisa Murkowski in her home state, in congressional races in Delaware, Florida and Arizona, and in gubernatorial races in Florida, South Carolina, Iowa and California.
Both women are polarizing figures, though Palin is helping her cause and Pelosi is damaging hers. But the inescapable truth is that American voters are troubled this Labor Day weekend. They’re worried about the economy. They’re concerned about the war in Afghanistan. They’re skeptical about the situation in Iraq and, even more so, in Iran.
The remarkable element isn’t so much the rise of Republican prospects in the November elections. That was predictable. Since the beginning of World War II, the party in power has lost, on average, more than two dozen House seats in midterm elections. Though the Republicans gained eight seats in 2002 (George W. Bush), the Democrats lost 55 seats in 1946 (Harry S Truman) and 54 in 1994 (Bill Clinton). The losses have been particularly acute in years when presidents have approval ratings under 50 percent. Obama’s approval ratings are generally between 43 percent and 48 percent in major polls as the general-election season approaches.
What was not predictable was the potential magnitude of the change, particularly only two years after such an enthusiastic election of a Democratic president and such a decisive repudiation of Republicans and their two-term president.
But, as we are seeing, repudiations are made to be repudiated, and many signs point to such a phenomenon this year on a major scale, diminishing if not eliminating the Democrats’ 77-seat majority in the House and, if the two Independents in the Senate are counted as virtual Democrats, their 18-seat margin in that chamber.
The Democrats’ burden is in part a leadership problem. They would be well-positioned to argue that the Republicans were mounting an intransigence intifada if their own leaders, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (whose re-election in Nevada is in peril at least in part because of Palin’s involvement) weren’t intransigence incarnate themselves.
Now to the president. Obama once seemed to have an instinct for pleasing everyone. Now he apparently has a genius for alienating both friends and foes.
His enemies on the right have mounted a campaign against Obama’s policies that, apart from fringe arguments that he is a Muslim and isn’t an American citizen, is not particularly unconventional, and the virulence of their attacks is not inconsistent with the assaults on George W. Bush when the Democrats were out of the White House and on Bill Clinton when the Republicans were in the wilderness.
But what is different is the attacks mounted on Obama from his putative friends on the left, who criticize him for caving on the single-payer element of his health care overhaul, failing to provide a second major stimulus and cozying up to Wall Street. In the months of Clinton’s peril, allies rallied around him, especially women, who in the Monica Lewinsky affair had reason to abandon him. Obama’s friends have yet to do so.
Few of his onetime supporters are likely to vote Republican, of course, though some may stay home Nov. 2. But they have sapped the White House of its energy and deprived Obama of the comfort that allies can provide a president.
We have seen, in the Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush White Houses, the danger posed by a president surrounded by an ultra-loyal Greek chorus. But a president deprived of his natural allies can swiftly become a president isolated — with, as the Democrats have reason to fear for the 112th Congress that gathers in January, a fearsome opposition on Capitol Hill.
— David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.