By David Hill - 04/20/05 12:00 AM EDT
You have to give the Democrats recognition for finally hatching a strategy. After wandering for so long with no particular message, they have finally decided to portray themselves as the party of congressional integrity and political reform.
Actually, they are not quite there yet. So far the Democrats have only committed publicly to making negative attacks on Republicans and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), painting them as corrupt. But I am giving them the benefit of any doubt and assume that they will ultimately get around to making the positive side of the comparison they hope to make between the two parties.
While I commend the Democrats for finally choosing a course of action, it’s unlikely to do them much good in the next round of elections. My first reaction to any political party running on a political reform platform is to smile smugly.
I have the same feeling whenever a young and ambitious aspiring candidate confidentially confides to me that he plans to seek victory on an ambitious platform of “strong leadership.” You try not to snicker, but it deserves nothing less than a huge guffaw. Soft concepts like “reform” and “leadership” never provide the firm footing that a candidate or party really needs for victory.
But the softness of the Democrats’ political integrity initiative is not its greatest defect. More damning is that it suffers from a lack of relevance for most voters. Probably no ordinary American voter anywhere in our great nation awoke this morning thinking that his or her family needs congressional lobbying reform. Some voters woke up hoping for a better job. Or praying for peace. But no one was really thinking about political reform.
A recent release of the Harris poll’s long-running examination of public confidence in American institutions explains why so few Americans care much about what the Democrats consider such a sizzling issue. While just 16 percent of Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in the people in charge of running Congress, that’s about par for the course since Watergate.
The average percentage of Americans expressing a great deal of confidence in congressional leaders from 1974 to 1979 was 14 percent. The 1980s saw the average rise to 18 percent. Then, in the 1990s, it fell again to 12 percent. Since 2000, it has averaged 17 percent. So there is no trend in voter cynicism about Congress.
The truth of the matter — and the Harris data make this point — is that few Americans expect Congress to be especially worthy of exceptional trust and confidence. So when one party tries to tell voters that it’s so much more trustworthy than the other party, voters are naturally going to be very skeptical. Voters aren’t about to believe that any politician or political party in Congress is really very pure. The politicians may, in fact, be clean, but almost no one will believe it. Most Americans don’t want to think of themselves as being that naive.
The Democrats’ strategy has other shortcomings, too. By focusing so much on DeLay, they are not making any broader points.
Suppose DeLay just up and quit. Where would the Democrats be then? Of course DeLay won’t quit, and he shouldn’t, but the fact that such a possibility exists undermines the astuteness of the Democratic strategy.
Attacking one member of Congress, no matter how powerful, doesn’t come close to having the electoral impact of something like the 1992 House bank scandal, when dozens of Democrats were on the hot seat before their party’s 1994 election meltdown.
Democrats have made a huge miscalculation by placing so much political capital behind their integrity initiative as a competitive strategy, leaving open the way for the Republicans to be the party of real issues and substance. As long as a majority of Americans sees the nation headed down the wrong track, I’d rather be standing for change on things that really count.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.