Lame duck, lame Congress

More than two-thirds of Americans say they have lost faith not only in President Bush but also in the Democrats running Congress.

All of the presidential candidates should be extremely worried about this development.

Because of rivalry among the states, next year’s primaries have been scheduled in warp speed. In only eight months from now, we will know who the Republican nominee will be and who the Democratic Party’s nominee will be.

If current polling numbers remain steady — never a sure thing; in politics, everything can change in a week — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York will be the Democratic nominee and either former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani or former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson will be the Republican nominee.

That means that for nine months next year, before Americans go to the polls in November, the intramural horse races will be over and we will be seeing, reading about, hearing from and pondering those candidates almost 24/7. No matter how sterling their qualities, we will be bored to death with them.

And no matter how much we expect from them, they will be essentially powerless, stuck in campaign — not governing — mode. The winner won’t take office until Jan. 20, 2009.

In the meantime, President Bush will be a lame duck, struggling against huge odds to repair his diminished legacy, tarnished by failure in Iraq, a growing catastrophe in the Middle East (witness the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority), venomous tensions with Russia, nuclear proliferation, an energized and poisonous Iran, environmental debates, the immigration stalemate and emerging crises we haven’t yet fathomed.

The other day, Bush, trying without success on Capitol Hill to shore up Republican allegiance to his immigration policy, referred to “my government.” No doubt he meant to say, “my administration.” Nonetheless, it was a bad mistake, emphasizing what an increasing number of Americans believe — his is a failed presidency, made worse by arrogance and stubbornness.

But Democrats, who took charge of Congress in January, are also branded with the label of incompetence. They have been unable to do anything about the war in Iraq, which has taken the lives of 3,500 American service members (and maimed thousands more). Despite Bush’s surge of troops into Iraq, the average number of attacks now exceeds 1,000 each week. And a Pentagon analysis shows that no decrease in violence is expected anytime soon. Each month, the outlook gets gloomier, the prognosis for escalating civil war worse.

At home, health-care costs are rising, energy costs are soaring, the individual savings rate has tanked, the fruitless immigration debate has exacerbated bitterness and fear, and few Americans can be found who think the country is on the “right track.” That’s an essentially meaningless polling term generally meant to convey whether the country is in an optimistic or a pessimistic mood. At the moment, pessimism reigns.

The elections last November essentially were a rebuke of the president and his mishandled, miscalculated war in Iraq. But there has been a negligible effect. Democrats seem unable to do anything concrete with their slim margins in the Senate and the House and Bush is unrepentant, refusing to admit to any mistakes or change significantly any of his policies. Many Republicans are left feeling furious with him. Many Democrats are left impotently steaming at their ineffectual leaders in Congress. And the hope of more bipartisanship has disappeared.

The unity of the country after 9/11 has completely vanished, almost entirely because of how badly the war in Iraq was handled. Americans, shocked by the attacks, were ready to pull together in a World War II-type spirit of joint sacrifice and patriotic fervor to defend their country. That’s gone. The sympathy and support America had from around the world after the attacks have been eroded. Now we’re regarded by millions, if not billions, as a mighty bully without principles while the unprincipled terrorists are increasingly hailed in some countries for keeping the big guy dancing around with his dukes flailing.

But for the next eight months we’re not likely to hear very much inspiring rhetoric about returning America to greatness with new solutions to old problems, but instead the same tired campaign whining, internecine jousting and meatless promises. Even the freshest faces, Barack Obama and Fred Thompson, are starting to look overly familiar, their words sounding too rehearsed.

Candidates, be warned. The new polls show that Americans are fed up with the status quo and might not be in the mood to take it anymore. They could tune out, not vote or be receptive to the first demagogue who comes along.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)

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