Yes, all politics is local. But there are signs that our shared national angst, frustration with the Bush administration, is becoming a local issue. The “bluing” of Virginia this week was one example. Democratic control of the Senate and Republican losses in the House seemed to have more to do with a general swing toward Democrats than any specific issues. Immigration turned out not to be the silver bullet Republicans hoped it would. Growth, roads and the environment had an impact, but overall it seems that Virginia is just turning bluer, particularly in the populous north.
Virginia is not at all unusual, according to the latest Democracy Corps poll. These studies, conducted from time to time by Stan Greenberg and James Carville, can be counted on to put a Democratic spin on their findings. But a short memo released this week on America’s view of the Congress contains some very interesting information.
Those who opine on talking-head television and in the pages of newspapers and magazines have spent a lot of time and column inches recently holding forth on the public’s revulsion with their elected representatives. “Sure, Bush’s numbers are low,” they say, “but look at Congress, theirs are even worse.”
Greenberg, a pollster whose work I respect, and Carville, who is both brilliant and bombastic, make a compelling case that Republicans are pulling down those ratings. Only a quarter of voters give positive ratings to the Congress as a whole. But when a specific member of Congress is named, Democratic incumbents score much better, and have for the past six months. I know the old bromide — “Everyone hates Congress but loves their own representative” — but that doesn’t seem to be what is at play here. Democratic members receive much higher marks than their Republican counterparts. When asked about their House member by name, Democrats score 42 percent favorable, as opposed to 33 percent for Republicans, who have dropped 10 points on this scale since their high-water mark in February.
What is the reason for the disparity? The simple answer seems to be President Bush and his administration. Every recent national poll shows that voters think the country is headed down the wrong track, Iraq is a mess, the economy is in trouble, the Department of Homeland Security is a disaster and Americans want a change of direction. That doesn’t just apply to Democratic and independent voters. Republicans have by and large had enough of this administration as well. Everyone is looking for a change.
But Republicans in Congress keep supporting this president. While many now say the war has been mishandled, few are willing to break with his strategy for a way out. They vote to uphold his vetoes, even of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program legislation that is wildly popular with folks back home. Behind Iraq, and in some polls terrorism, healthcare is the most important issue facing the country. Yet Republicans in Congress are willing to support a presidential veto for sake of party unity. Finally, this week, Republican House members joined Democrats in an override of the president’s veto of a $23 billion water resources bill. Possibly a sign that some are getting the message, but a mostly symbolic gesture, since the bill only authorizes projects but doesn’t fund them.
More telling will be a couple of high-dollar spending packages – one for health, education and labor programs, another for military construction and veterans’ affairs. The House has passed both and Bush has promised to veto both. The House vote was short of the two-thirds needed to override the threatened veto.
The message coming out of Congress is that Republicans are going to toe the party line and support their president. The message coming from voters is that they do so at their peril. According to the Democracy Corps study, Democrats are holding a stable 51 to 41 percent advantage in test congressional races. The Democrats’ lead is even stronger in their battleground districts (54 to 37 percent) and they even hold a 48 to 42 percent margin in Republican battlegrounds.
November 2008 is still a year away, local issues do matter and anything can happen. For now, however, the message we’re getting is pretty clear. Local voters are sick and tired of what they’ve been getting out of Washington, and if the Democrats can make the case that they’ll actually make changes, there will probably be a change of colors in the White House and a very blue Congress to help push his or her Democratic agenda.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.