Friday, August 14, 2009

The Flip Side

In recent years, Democrats have gained an understanding of what Tom Petty was talking about when he wrote "It's Good to be King."

After winning control of Congress in 2006 and following up by winning the White House and expanding congressional majorities in 2008, I think many Democrats have assumed an aura of invincibility. But there are troubling signs out there, just as there have been in the past.

That's the flip side of power in a democracy.

One of the things that parties enjoying control of both the executive and legislative branches never seem to learn is that they were put in power for a reason. Something is wrong, and the voters want to change the approach because they want different results.

The election was not necessarily a mandate for a political philosophy. It might be. On rare occasions, it has been. But usually it's a case of the voters choosing to give the other party a chance.

It isn't a lasting commitment. Voters can be fickle. But high expectations that go unmet can produce considerable disenchantment.

Democrats, therefore, should pay attention to what Reuters reports: "Industrial output gained for the first time in nine months in July and inflation remained muted, but consumer confidence was unexpectedly weak."

What is behind this weakness in consumer confidence? Perhaps it is continuing concerns about inflation. As Reuters observes, inflation has "remained muted."

But that can change without much warning. And I have a friend who often expresses concerns about inflation, whether there seems to be a cause for such concerns.

The stimulus package seems to be a source of lingering inflation concerns — which is one of many reasons why I have been saying that job creation needed to be a priority. But it hasn't been. Perhaps that is another reason consumer confidence is weak.

Maybe unemployment really will start to turn around. But how will the voters respond if the national jobless rate hits double digits?

I think part of it may be due to some disappointment that Democrats have not followed through on their pledge to change the culture in Washington. Instead of bipartisanship, we're seeing the same partisan games. Barack Obama has made efforts at times to achieve a bipartisan consensus, but it may be more difficult for many congressional Democrats to make that claim.

Many Democrats think Obama's personal popularity will save them from the wrath of the voters. But Obama won't be on the ballot in 2010.

As I wrote earlier this week, Gallup's latest surveys had Obama's approval rating at 53%; at this point in his first year, Bill Clinton's approval rating was 44%.

Clinton's party, of course, lost control of Congress in 1994. But, if Obama's approval rating is nine points better than Clinton's in the seventh months of their presidencies, surely Obama can avoid the same fate. Right?

Perhaps. But one of the first things the Democrats need to remember is that, since the end of World War II, it has required an unprecedented national crisis (and the consequential rally–'round–the–flag reaction supporting the incumbent's party) for a second–year president and his party to avoid setbacks in the midterm elections. John F. Kennedy's party profited at the polls immediately following the Cuban Missile Crisis, and George W. Bush's party continued to appeal to patriotism more than a year after 9–11 and increased the GOP's majorities in Congress.

Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan and Clinton couldn't avoid the midterm losses. Neither could Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon or George H.W. Bush. It doesn't matter if the president's party controls Congress or not. His party suffers at the polls.

Byron York writes in the Washington Examiner that Republicans are speaking — albeit tentatively — of something they didn't dare speak of a few months ago.

"It's a possibility many Republicans speak of only in whispers and Democrats are just now beginning to face," York writes. "After passionate and contentious fights over health care, the environment, and taxes, could Democrats lose big — really big — in next year's elections?"

Without Obama himself on the ballot, bringing in his diehard supporters who could be counted upon to support the Democrats in state and local races, I think the playing field may be leveled.

York also reports being told by Democrats that Obama's popularity will insulate them. Or maybe they believe they can say "Bush started it" and win the support of worried voters who want to see results.

But Obama's popularity is not the whole story, he says.
" 'I think what's going to happen is Obama's going to be fine, and the Democrats in Congress are going to get their asses kicked in 2010,' says one Democratic strategist who prefers not to be named. 'This is following a curve like the Clinton years: take on really controversial things early, fail, or succeed partially, ask Democrats to take really tough votes, and then lose. A lot of guys are going to get beat, but the president has time to recover.' "

York makes a good case that Democrats are losing ground.

If they're going to reverse the tide, time is running short.

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