Voters to GOP: Go home and stay there

Voter confidence in President Bush and the GOP leadership of Congress is at an all-time low. Good news for Democrats. But there is always a "but" in politics.

Richard Morin and Dan Balz report in Wednesday’s Washington Post:

Public confidence in GOP governance has plunged to the lowest levels of the Bush presidency, with Americans saying by wide margins that they now trust Democrats more than Republicans to deal with Iraq, the economy, immigration and other issues, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll that underscores the GOP’s fragile grip on power six months before the midterm elections.

Dissatisfaction with the administration’s policies in Iraq has overwhelmed other issues as the source of problems for President Bush and the Republicans. The survey suggests that pessimism about the direction of the country — 69 percent said the nation is now off track — and disaffection with Republicans have dramatically improved Democrats’ chances to make gains in November.

Democrats are now favored to handle all 10 issues measured in the Post-ABC News poll. The survey shows a majority of the public, 56 percent, saying they would prefer to see Democrats in control of Congress after the elections.

The poll offers two cautions for the Democrats, however. One is a growing disaffection with incumbents generally. When asked whether they were inclined to reelect their current representative to Congress or look around for someone new, 55 percent said they were open to someone else, the highest since just before Republicans captured control of Congress in 1994. That suggests that some Democratic incumbents could feel the voters’ wrath, although as the party in power Republicans have more at risk.

The second warning for Democrats is that their improved prospects for November appear driven primarily by dissatisfaction with Republicans rather than by positive impressions of their own party. Congressional Democrats are rating only slightly more favorably than congressional Republicans, and 52 percent of those surveyed said the Democrats have not offered a sharp contrast to Bush and the Republicans.

Only a third wants the GOP to remain in the majority in Congress. Nearly three times as many Americans say they will use the elections to express opposition to the president (30 percent) than to show support for him (12 percent).

The voter anger is understandable but Democrats need to remember a lesson the Republicans never learned after they seized control of Congress in 1994: Winning control because of dissastisfaction with the party in power is not the same as voter endorsement of your agenda. Voters in 1994 expressed a general anger at President Bill Clinton and the Democratic leadership of Congress but Republicans saw it as a mandate to pursue their agenda of right-wing extremism.

If Democrats do gain control of Congress this year they must should see it as a chance to move Congress out of its gridlock, not swing the pendulum too quickly to the left. Voters want results, not extremism.

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