Dems must frame debate

While Washington waits for the other shoe to drop in special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation of the CIA leak, there is growing evidence that it doesn’t matter when or if he gets indictments from the grand jury. American voters have gotten the message about the Bush administration, and they’re not happy.

While Washington waits for the other shoe to drop in special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation of the CIA leak, there is growing evidence that it doesn’t matter when or if he gets indictments from the grand jury. American voters have gotten the message about the Bush administration, and they’re not happy.

Two weeks ago, President Bush’s approval rating hit an all time low of 39 percent in public polls. In the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, he’s clawed his way back up to a 42 percent favorability rating. That three-point shift is within the margin of error on these polls, so the president is basically stuck at a 40 percent approval. Since 1952, when a president’s approval ratings dropped below 50 percent his party lost an average of 43 seats in the House of Representatives.

It is not just historical trends that are giving Democrats new hope right now. A number of public polls show that voters think Democrats would do a better job of fixing what is wrong with the country. A Pew Research Center poll finds that a majority sees Democrats as the party “concerned with the needs of people like me.” A 16-point plurality sees Democrats as the party that can bring about the kind of changes the country needs.

The new CNN poll found majorities believe Democrats could do a better job than Republicans on healthcare, Social Security, gasoline prices and the economy. By 46 to 40 percent, people see Democrats as being able to do better at handling the Iraq war. Republicans best the Democrats only on fighting terrorism, where they have an advantage of 49 percent to 38 percent.

All that is good news for Democrats, but it is no guarantee of success. The midterm election is still a year away. A lot can happen in a year. Congressional Republicans can, and will, put some distance between themselves and the White House.

Just this week Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) took an aggressive leadership stance on border security. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) actually slapped the hands of oil companies on the House floor, although such scolding loses its bite if Democrats point out that 80 percent of oil-company contributions go to Republicans.

The president has shown he has the will and the ability to alter the political landscape to his advantage as well. January’s State of the Union message could prove a launching pad for such initiatives driven by a new, less ideological team of advisers … if Fitzgerald triggers a White House shake-up.

Current congressional approval marks are comparable to those in the run-up to the 1994 election. A week ago, the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll had 64 percent disapproving of the way Congress was handling its job. A Pew Research Center poll around the same time had 52 percent disapproving of the job Republican leaders are doing and 48 percent disapproving of the job Democrats are doing. Not much difference there.

Back in ’94, the Republicans swept to victory on discipline and message. Democrats don’t have either yet. While most voters may not have specifically recalled the Republicans’ Contract with America, it gave a framework to the campaign. It kept candidates on message. Republicans have also been extremely disciplined about recruiting and grooming candidates and keeping them out of primaries.

Democrats are too … well … democratic for such hardball tactics, it seems. Already they have primaries between first-tier candidates in several important states and districts. As to the message war, swing voters see little difference between the parties on issues such as jobs, healthcare and gas prices. Those are critical issues to critical voters. Americans’ concerns are focused on economic growth and job creation, spending for the war in Iraq, record deficits, healthcare, homeland security, gas and energy costs, and corruption and cronyism in Washington.

The closest thing to a message we’ve heard in recent weeks is “we can do better” and attacks on the Republican “culture of cronyism and corruption.” That alone is not a winning message. Americans have figured out the cronyism angle; what they want is a vision for something better.

One of the first lessons I learned in politics was “If you define the terms, you win the debate.” To achieve their potential in the midterm elections, Democrats must make the debate about the issues that keep Americans awake at night.

Jobs, healthcare, the economy, energy and homeland security are the problems America wants to be fixed. If Democrats can win that debate they can win control of Congress in 2006.

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