If the Dems Could Just Get Their Act Together

Normally a presidential job-approval rating as low as George W. Bush’s would be an indication of impending doom for his second-term legislative agenda and to his party’s fortunes in the congressional elections next year. Recent polls show Bush’s overall rating as low as it has ever been, around 47 percent.

But the diminished outlook for Bush and the Republican Party is tempered by the fact that Democrats don’t fare much better when it comes to measuring what the country needs and who can best deliver it.

As the highly regarded demographer John Zogby put it recently, Democrats have become “the just-say-no party” with little to offer in the way of creative ideas on how to solve Social Security and a variety of other problems most concerning Americans. Democrats, he said, are all defense and no offense. In fact, Zogby’s latest survey shows _ and his figures aren’t disputed _ that if the election were repeated today _ Democrat John Kerry would still lose to Bush, by 46 percent to 41 percent, a gap that does not bode well for Kerry’s hopes for a repeat nomination.

Not unsurprisingly, while the president’s major initiative to establish private Social Security accounts is now given little chance of surviving, most people agree that the giant entitlement fund will need major overhauling to escape the baby-boom drain on resources down the road. But they don’t see any solutions from Democrats other than the normal tax increases. It was this failure to project a message that hurt them in last fall’s elections and, unless quickly remedied, will damage their chances of taking over the Congress in the 2006 midterms. History shows that the party out of the White House generally picks up congressional seats in midterm elections.

Although surveys this early in the game admittedly are less valuable in assessing the ultimate outcome, they certainly show a worrisome trend for both parties. For lame-duck presidents, the stakes are high when it comes to the brief window they have to accomplish their domestic agenda. That is considered the two years before the next election, when political lines harden, even in their own party, in anticipation of the next two-year run for the White House. That is particularly true since the Republican nomination will be up for grabs among several potential candidates, who at times could be expected to put their own interests above the president’s.

For Democrats, the message of the latest polls is clear. If they are to reverse the aura of negativism that surrounds them, they must do more than oppose initiatives. It was a similar image that Republicans projected during the Franklin Roosevelt and Truman administrations, when both presidents and their congressional candidates successfully ran against them as obstructionists. Hindering Democratic efforts so far has been the lack of truly decisive leadership in Congress or a popular party figure who could energize not only the base but reach out to independents and moderate Republicans. Party chairman _ and one-time presidential hopeful _Howard Dean was expected to enliven the image, but so far has not made much of a splash.

Kerry has not assumed that role and his showing in polls seems to indicate he has little chance of doing so. The one potential candidate who might fill the vacuum, of course, is New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who the pollsters see as easing toward the center in anticipation of a 2008 presidential bid. Clinton now, as she was before last year’s voting, is probably the party’s most charismatic contender despite a built-in negative factor stemming from her White House days that she seems to be overcoming.

About the only area where Bush has a positive margin is in his conduct of the war on terrorism, and that approval has been aided by the fact that steady predictions of more 9/11s have not come true so far. A cataclysmic event would alter things dramatically. At the same time, Zogby and others find that Americans increasingly want the U.S. occupation of Iraq ended. Here again, however, they say Democrats have a dilemma in how to handle the situation, whether to oppose it or support it or how far to go either way.

Democrats have another dilemma. How to deal with a decisive, hard-nosed president who, as soft-spoken Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters recently, “always wants to hit a home run,” making negotiations difficult.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)