By David Hill - 10/17/07 07:34 PM EDT
Signs of the Democrats’ advantages abound. Republicans have an ever-increasing number of our seats at risk and the problem grows worse with sudden, unexpected retirements by GOP incumbents. Democratic candidates in competitive races, by and large, are raising more money than their Republican opponents. The Democratic faithful are in high spirits, while polls show the Republican base is in a funk. If we ask voters of any party stripe who is likely to win the elections next November, there is little hesitation in fingering the Democrats as the victors.
The American mind recoils at one-party control. This is the single most evident and notable achievement of civics education in America. Americans may not be able to wax eloquent about why one-party rule is wrong, but they know it is. This observation and conclusion was borne out by a 2005 Harris Poll. This nationwide telephone survey of 1,002 adults concluded that “the majority of Americans could use a civics refresher course.”
Only a slim majority could identify the three branches of government. Less than half of those polled could identify the meaning of separation of powers or the role of the judiciary.
But where Americans get it right is the principle of checks and balances. The study reported that 64 percent of Americans “can correctly identify the principle of checks and balances.” But even more important is the survey’s finding that 82 percent of Americans “believe checks and balances are important.”
While this poll’s “correct” version of checks and balances was legalistically constitutional in its definition (“A division of power among the branches of federal government that prevents any one of them from going beyond their constitutional authority”), in everyday discussion with ordinary voters the checking and balancing has as much to do with political parties as it does with vetoes, judicial review, confirmations and other constitutional formalities. Voters think that one party keeps the other one from getting out of line.
Democrats themselves preached this message throughout 2005 and 2006. On the eve of the November 2006 election, Joan Chittister, a prominent liberal Catholic, wrote an essay for the National Catholic Reporter in which she said that “our system of checks and balances isn’t working.” She even suggested that “maybe we need to consider dividing the government so that whichever party wins the presidency, the other party, by default, gets the Congress in order to require the kind of compromise we are now not getting.” Of course, this Benedictine Sister was not interested in rewriting the Constitution — she was sending out a message to elect a Democratic Congress to offset Bush and the Republicans.
At about the same time, Newsbusters’ Brent Baker reported that MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann urged his viewers to “return ‘checks and balances’ to the political system, slamming the Bush administration: ‘Unchecked and unbalanced. Vote.’ ”
So this big theme of checks and balances worked once for the Democrats. I’d wager it can work again, only this time for Republicans.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.