Congress, listen to the people

Four days a week a group of Rappahannock County residents gathers for lunch at The Public House in Flint Hill, Va. The “Lunch Bunch” has a fluid membership, with anywhere from four to a dozen gathering on any given day to break bread and share whatever is on their minds. It is an eclectic and fascinating group that includes many with roots going back generations and a healthy sprinkling of “come-heres” — those who have recently discovered a beautiful corner of the world (“recently” being any time in the last century).

Two words kept cropping up around the large table one day this week: “incompetent” and “irrelevant.” Incompetent as in a president who has bungled the war in Iraq, can’t deliver immigration reform and who managed to offend virtually everyone with his commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence. Irrelevant as in a Congress that can’t get the nation out of a war their constituents want ended, is paralyzed on immigration reform and seems capable only of political posturing on issues ranging from healthcare to energy and the environment. As one put it, “Congress is in the dumper.”

The folks of Rappahannock County are not alone in those views. A year ago the Pew Research Center found that the one word Americans used to describe their president was “incompetent.” Things have not improved since that study was conducted. I heard the same message dozens of times during a swing through the Western states a few weeks ago. Recent polls confirm those views are widely held. Whether you believe Gallup or Newsweek, it is clear that President George W. Bush has some of the lowest approval ratings of any president in 60 years. While the administration keeps asking America to wait until Gen. David Petraeus delivers his September report on whether the troop surge is working, people have already made their decision. Over 60 percent now say it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq, and over 70 percent want those troops brought home.

The high-level Republican defections of the past few weeks suggest that senators and members have heard the same thing back home. The dam broke when Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar split with the president. The rush of Republicans jumping ship since has made headlines and, reportedly, caused great pain at the White House. Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) has laid the blame for a failed strategy at the president’s door. Even Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) now says the troops must come home, and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) may vote for legislation sponsored by Sens. Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinSen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some Democrats The Hill's 12:30 Report Congress needs bipartisanship to fully investigate Russian influence MORE (D) of Michigan and Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedDems walk tightrope on Pompeo nomination Dem senators call on FCC to protect against robocalls Senate Dems press Trump on legal justification for potential Syria strike MORE (D) of Rhode Island calling for troop withdrawals to begin within 120 days and be completed by the end of April 2008. The proposed adoption of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations is also attracting Republican support, with a half-dozen GOP senators saying they are likely to vote for it.

It is not likely, however, that these or other legislative proposals to end the war will succeed even with Republican defections. I won’t presume to count votes up on The Hill, but I’ve yet to see evidence of enough Republican support to break a filibuster or override the certain presidential veto of any troop withdrawal target dates. But I will presume to say that the nation is headed for a train wreck if all this debate just results in the usual political standoff.

When the administration reports to the Congress on July 15 that progress has been made by the Iraqi leadership, it will be widely disbelieved. Americans have already decided the administration’s Iraq strategy is wrong and that prosecution of the war is incompetent. Claims of incremental progress will not change that.

If the leaders of the House and Senate don’t end this war soon, it will confirm to voters they are irrelevant. A few days ago Sen. Bond was asked how long the House and Senate should have permitted an “inadequate strategy” to continue. He defended congressional inaction by saying, “Congress was not running the war.” That is not a good answer, Senator. Voters think you should have been running it because the president clearly wasn’t doing the job.

American voters are tired of leaders who are incompetent, irrelevant or both. They have been trying to send that message, but it seems few in this town are listening. Voters will make sure they are heard at the ballot box next November, and that is not good news for those who are not taking care of the people’s business.

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