By Richard S. Dunham Just a few months ago, I was talking to a plain-spoken Democratic pollster about the mood of Democrats in a nation's capital controlled by a popular Republican President, a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and a Republican Supreme Court. "Suicidal" was the pithy response.
Well, cancel the suicide watch and send the thank-you notes to Dr. Jeffords of Vermont. These days, Democrats appear revived, recommitted, almost buoyant at the new political realities inside the Beltway. The Democrats not only have taken over the Senate, they've started with a bang: pushing with lightning speed for passage of a patients' bill of rights and slowing down the Administration's rush to fill the federal judiciary with conservative legal minds.
Moreover, President Bush's honeymoon came to a crashing halt with the introduction of his unpopular energy plan. The President's job-approval ratings have been on a steady slide, most noticeably among centrist swing voters and conservative Democrats.
POLL VAULTERS. While Bush has plenty of time to recover before the 2004 election, the change of fortunes in the capital has given congressional Republicans a mood-altering dose of reality. A June 22-25 Zogby Poll showed Democrats 10 points ahead in a generic congressional election -- doubling the party's edge in just two months. Unless those numbers change, the GOP will never hold onto the House and recapture the Senate in the mid-term elections of 2002.
And those goals are getting tougher by the day. By 57% to 32%, Americans believe the Democratic Party is more open than the GOP to the ideas of political moderates, according to a June 3 ABC News/Washington Post Poll.
With a sagging economy and poll numbers like that, you'd think Democrats might be able to coast to victory in '02. But the party must carefully craft its political agenda.
SKIP THE JOKES. First, the bad news for Democrats: A June 11-13 survey by former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg finds that voters believe that Bush is honest, moral, trustworthy, intelligent, and mainstream. So skip the Letterman-style jokes about the dumb guy in the Oval Office.
Greenberg's poll also finds that the Democratic Party doesn't exactly evoke longing in Middle America. When Greenberg asked voters to describe the Dems, four of the five most common responses were negative. Among them: "for bigger government," "tax and spend," "care more for the poor than the middle class," and "out of touch."
"WHO'S HE FOR?" So where do Democrats attack Bush and the Hill's Republicans? The most obvious target: Government by and for the special interests. By 63% to 34%, voters say Bush is "more for big business than the average person," according to the Greenberg poll. And by 56% to 37%, they say he is "President for the oil companies."
Political analysts of all stripes attribute this widespread public perception to Bush's environmental policies and his controversial energy plan, which was drawn up by Vice-President Dick Cheney after extensive consultation with corporate interests -- but with little input from environmental or consumer groups. "The energy debate is clearly defining Bush," says Democratic guru James Carville, whose wife, Mary Matalin, works for Cheney. "Who's he for? He's not standing up to [the special interests]."
Democrats also say they want to make Bush's big tax cut an issue in 2002, but they must be careful. A majority of voters approve of the $1.35 trillion plan signed into law by the President, and the front-loaded cuts are more favorable to lower- and middle-income workers. But Democrats are seeking to reframe the tax-cut debate over whether to repeal implementation of future tax cuts for the wealthy.
MAKING ECONOMIC HAY. The Dems want to argue that those billions should be funneled to overwhelmingly popular domestic programs, things like Medicare, Social Security, and education. By 70% to 27%, voters say they'd cancel the future rate cuts for the wealthiest 1% of taxpayers and instead create a new prescription-drug benefit for seniors, according to the Greenberg poll.
The party also hopes to make hay out of public concern about the direction of the economy. "America was at this historic moment: record surpluses and record low unemployment," argues Carville. "And it was squandered. We missed a historic opportunity. If things stay stagnant [with the economy], the Democratic theme [in 2002 is], 'These guys killed hope.'"
Sounds good, but too much economic populism could backfire. Democratic pols have a counterproductive habit of resorting to class-warfare rhetoric that alienates moderates and even some working-class stiffs. Voters won't be so simplistic as to blame the GOP for everything that went wrong.
RECKLESS DRIVERS? Still, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, and on Main Street in between, it's indisputable that the party in power always suffers at the polls in bad economic times. Says Carville: "This is a pretty clear road map."
Carville is correct. The road map is clear. But will the Democrats be reckless drivers? Will that strategy play in Peoria, like those clever commercials starring Harry and Louise that skewered the Clinton health plan? Or, like in the '91 action drama of two rebel gals, Thelma & Louise, will the Democrats drive off the cliff? It's up to them. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online