Public does not know who runs the U.S.

McCain’s “Change is coming” mantra is going to help him, but there’s one small fly in the ointment. Too many Americans today associate “change” with a turn away from Republicans because they incorrectly believe that Republicans are running the country that they believe is on the wrong track.

This is one of the dirty little secrets of public opinion that newspapers and their polls either distort or ignore. The public doesn’t really understand who’s actually in charge. Consider the front-page, above-the-fold article in last Friday’s New York Times. Misleadingly labeled as “News Analysis,” the headline editorializes, “The Party in Power, Running as if It Weren’t.” The “analysis” proceeds to quote “experts” like Joe Trippi claiming that McCain cannot be an agent of change because a Republican is president. Accompanying analysis suggests that the party of change is the Democratic Party because its convention speakers mentioned the word “change” 56 more times than did Republicans.

So because Bush is in the White House and Democrats pay more lip service to change, it is supposed that Republicans promising change are either liars or hypocrites.

Somehow, it seems to be forgotten that 52 percent of state senators and 55 percent of state representatives are Democrats. Overlooked is the fact that 56 percent of America’s governors are Democrats. Virtually all big-city mayors are Democrats. Most glaringly, many Americans don’t seem aware that Democrats strongly control both chambers of the U.S. Congress. But somehow, Republicans are supposed to be “in charge” just because Bush is in the White House.

This can be insidious beyond belief. In one Midwestern state I polled earlier this year that has a multi-term Democratic governor, Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislature and two Democrats in the U.S. Senate, on most issues, even explicitly state issues, pluralities of voters said that Republicans are “more responsible” for a long list of public policies.

Here’s a dare for some open-minded public polling organization. Ask a national sample of Americans which party — the Republicans or the Democrats — “controls the U.S. House and the Senate.” And then report the results. The results will raise eyebrows. Even if a solid majority gets the answer right, that 20 to 30 percent don’t know or get it wrong should be disturbing, especially when most are swing voters looking for that elusive thing known as change.

Why don’t more Americans have a more sophisticated sense of who’s really running America? Is the problem simple civic ignorance? Are we such a “banana republic” that we believe the “top man” runs everything? Is a biased press, as in the aforementioned New York Times piece (penned by Peter Baker), filling empty heads with misinformation?

Obviously, one of the problems is that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are such nonentities. So few marginally informed Americans know who they are that it’s no surprise that many still assume the Republicans are running Congress. More Americans than you’d suspect probably would say that Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay have more clout in Washington than Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, even today. The Democrats, their hit men in the press and, yes, Gingrich and DeLay themselves, made that duo household names universally acknowledged as powerful. The same cannot be said about their Democrat successors. They barely elicit a response, except among stout partisans.

To make McCain’s message work, the Republican Party needs to use the media more powerfully, especially in Democrat-controlled swing states, to drive home the civics lesson that, in fact, Democrats are mostly in charge at every level of government: federal, state and local.

Only a strong agent of change and political maverick like McCain in the White House can challenge Democrat hegemony and get the nation headed in the right direction again.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.