Dems won't win just on scandal

It should be no surprise to anyone who has worked on a campaign in the real world that there is often little relationship between what folks who work in D.C. talk about and what the people they work for think about.

Even though thousands of working reporters file stories and crowd the morning talk shows with Beltway chatter, it often does not resonate where votes are actually cast. Current speculation over the Jack Abramoff scandal is a classic example of that dynamic.

Today’s vote for new Republican leadership in the house may be greatly influenced by members’ angst over what the Democrats call the “culture of corruption.” But come November, that issue per se will only settle races where an incumbent has been indicted or convicted, has resigned or is clearly connected to Abramoff.

The “culture of corruption” line gets applause at Democrat fundraisers, especially here inside the Beltway, but it is a message that does better at opening wallets than moving votes.

There is a simple reason for that. It is just not news to most voters. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 65 percent said lobbying reform won’t change things. A recent Hotline poll says corruption and illegal activities are an equal problem among “members of Congress from both parties.”

The NBC/WSJ survey found that 36 percent of voters thought Republicans were more influenced by special interests, 22 percent thought Democrats were and 33 percent picked “both parties.” That’s a pox on both their houses.

One of this town’s brightest political observers, Charlie Cook, quoted legendary Louisiana politician Earl Long on the issue of political reform at a recent gathering. Long, he recalled, said political reform is when you run the fat hogs out and let the lean hogs in. That is the view of most Americans, and they don’t think changes in the rules will suddenly make politicians honest.

As a prominent Washington lobbyist recently told me, “We have lots of laws against robbing banks, but that doesn’t stop people from robbing thousands of banks each year.” Her point is a good one. Changing the lobbying rules won’t change the rules of the game. Interests still want to influence — and they will. Voters know that, which is why they are so cynical about reforms.

Now, that doesn’t mean all this focus on corruption won’t have some impact on the 2006 elections. It validates voters’ views that few politicians are to be trusted. It reminds voters than any party granted power for too long will inevitably abuse it.

That was one underlying factor in the devastating loss by Democrats in 1994. A former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee official told me they were seeing signs of slippage in ’92. In early ’94, a few Democrat operatives began to worry about House seats that should have been safe for Democrats but were showing incumbents only a few points ahead. We’re hearing similar reports from the field this year, only the threatened ones are Republicans.

It has now been a dozen years since the Gingrich revolution. Time in power has made Republicans arrogant, complacent and convinced they are the anointed guardians of the true faith. Sounds a lot like Jim Wright’s Democrats, doesn’t it? Tom DeLay’s K Street Project is, to be honest, not that different from what Wright did in 1980s. He just didn’t have a clever name for it. American voters can sense when the hogs are getting too fat.

But for Democrats to take advantage of voter disgust, they need to do more than rely on the “culture of corruption” message. They need to tie those abuses to policies that help the powerful and hurt the people. They need a coherent message that explains how they will bring the troops home safely. They need a clear vision of healthcare reform that is less bureaucratic and much more personal than President Bush’s foundering prescription-drug program. They need to lay out clear plans to stimulate the economy in ways working Americans believe they’ll actually see in their paychecks. And they absolutely must convince Americans that Democrats will protect us against terrorism as well as the president.

If they do that, Americans have shown they are willing to trust a Democrat Congress with their future rather than a monolithic single-party government. That could deliver them six seats in the Senate and 15 in the House.

That is the challenge Democrats must meet and the message they must deliver. If they do it, 2006 will be 1994 all over again — but with a different party leading the revolution.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com