In June 1953, cartoonist Walt Kelly had one of his characters say the immortal words, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Congressional Democrats would be wise to take this line to heart.
Some Capitol Hill Democrats are accusing President Obama of pushing too hard; others argue that he has not provided enough leadership or pushed hard enough. Although Obama has indeed made some critical miscalculations and missteps this year, the Democratic Congress has significantly damaged itself. And its members -- not Obama -- will be the ones on the ballot in November 2010.
A whopping 48 Democrats -- eight more than the size of their majority -- are from districts that voted for both Bush and McCain.
Republicans have finally come up with an organization to do the public opinion and message testing that Stan Greenberg and James Carville's Democracy Corps has long done for Democrats. The consortium, dubbed Resurgent Republic, produced a report last week based on focus groups conducted last month among independent voters in Florida, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia by five prominent GOP pollsters. The report, written by former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and a sixth top poller, Whit Ayres, found a reservoir of goodwill among independents toward Obama -- if not his policies -- but those warm feelings did not extend to Congress.
I am becoming convinced, based on this and other research, that although many independent voters are disappointed in specific things that Obama has done, they still hope that he will do well and believe that he might. To be sure, red America has already given Obama the thumbs down. And blue America just wishes he would be more liberal. But it's purple America, the independents who voted for Democrats in the 2006 midterm election by an 18-point margin, that makes the biggest difference right now. Most House Democrats live in blue America and show little awareness that their party has a problem. However, the Democrats' majority is built on a layer of 54 seats that the party picked up in 2006 and 2008 that are largely in purple -- or even red -- America. Democrats ought to keep in mind that 84 of their current House members represent districts won by President Bush in 2004 or John McCain in 2008.
A whopping 48 of those Democrats -- eight more than the size of their party's majority -- are from districts that voted for both Bush and McCain. That America is very different from the Democratic base in blue America, and it sees many major issues very differently.
Resurgent Republic's findings corroborate a growing view that the cumulative impact of Democratic missteps has reached a critical mass, with Obama receiving some damage and with Democrats in Congress and the Democratic Party receiving much more. Critics point to the Troubled Asset Relief Program; the takeovers of banks and auto companies; an economic stimulus package that they see as ineffectual and stuffed with pork; and climate-change and health care reform efforts as all being contributing factors to Democrats' decline.
The 17-point advantage that Democrats enjoyed in the January Gallup Poll (when "leaners" were included) shrank to 5 points in August. Their edge on the generic congressional ballot test has vanished, according to most national polls. For three years, Democrats enjoyed high single-digit or low double-digit leads on this question -- a very good indicator of which direction (and how hard) the political winds are blowing as a congressional election nears.
What we are seeing is an electorate growing just as disgusted with the Democratic majority as it did with the Republican one in 2006. The mounting ethics problems of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., combined with ongoing allegations about House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., and others on his panel threaten to make matters still worse for their party.
Sure, November 2010 is a long way off, and the economy may well be substantially better by then. But Democratic lawmakers, who must face the voters two years before Obama does, should remember that the public's attitudes tend to eventually harden. Think cement.
This article appears in the Sep. 19, 2009, edition of National Journal.