Public looking for change

The message is clear to American voters: Washington, D.C. is, as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said in this week’s Republican debate, a mess. Only a quarter of Americans now believe the country is “on the right track,” according to several recent polls. President George W. Bush’s approval ratings have been in the mid-30s for several months now. He’s not the only one in trouble with voters. According to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, approval of the Congress is falling rapidly. Congress now gets favorable marks from just over a third of the electorate, driven in large part by a 10-point drop in support for the Democratic leadership.

News from the nation’s capital this week is not likely to make things any better. Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) has been indicted on 16 counts of bribery and corruption. I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, has been sentenced to 30 months in prison and slapped with a quarter-million-dollar fine for lying about his role in the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity.

Neither event was unexpected, but the political posturing surrounding both will further demean voters’ opinions of our political leaders. In what The Hill reporter Mike Soraghan described in these pages as “an ethics arms race” earlier this week, both Republicans and Democrats scrambled for political advantage over the Jefferson indictments. Meanwhile, back in the courtroom, Libby’s defense team delivered a tall stack of letters from marquee-name Republicans, and at least one prominent Democrat, asking that Scooter be let off easy because he was such a nice guy. I think most Americans will come to the same conclusion that U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, a Bush appointee, did: “The sentence has to make clear and loud that truth matters and one’s station in life does not.”

That is a concept that few in power seem to get these days. The Bush administration has compiled a six-year historical record of choosing political loyalty over competence or honesty.

The lack of competence has been well-documented. Our inept performance in Iraq after the initial military victory was laid bare in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s brilliant book Imperial Life in the Emerald City. The follies of Paul Bremer and the Republican loyalists who followed him to Baghdad are stranger than fiction. (The book is, in fact, on its way to the big screen.) Most damning was the litany of experienced public servants being replaced or passed over so that Bush loyalists could take leadership positions for which they proved themselves totally unqualified.

The administration’s failure to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina put incompetence on the nightly news and contributed to a voter frustration that still grows in this country. Most recently we’ve seen how vulnerable our borders are when a man on a watch list because of his dangerous case of TB waltzed into the country from Canada. Department of Homeland Security protestations that the system really does work just won’t hold up. If a border guard pays no attention to warnings on a “watch list,” the system is not working.

Even Republican candidates for president understand how much damage those poor performances have done. The 10 Republicans onstage in the New Hampshire debate this week often sounded like Democrats. They directed as much criticism against President Bush as at each other or the Democratic field.

As for honesty — Scooter Libby is but the latest in a list of cheats and liars that stretches from Jack Abramoff to William Jefferson. The partisan scramble to excuse, ignore or make political capital out of their abuses will only further diminish respect for America’s political leadership.  

Americans have always been skeptical of the competence and honesty of politicians. When skepticism turns to disgust, the result is a sea change in political alignment. The country is primed for that right now. The challenge for those wanting to ride that wave of change is that the entire political establishment is under a cloud. Everyone elected to serve in Washington suffers from guilt by association. Voters will be looking for candidates who not only feel their frustration, but also can convincingly argue they will change the way business is done in this town. That is the message America is looking for in 2008, and it is not likely to be believed coming from incumbents or those entrenched in the political establishment.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: