WASHINGTON – Six years of Republican control in Washington have taken a toll on the country – and the GOP is paying the price politically. Instead of the Bush administration ushering in a new era of GOP dominance, as Karl Rove hoped, it has set the stage for a Democratic resurgence.
That turnabout was implicit in the results of the 2006 midterm election, when Democrats took back narrow majorities in the House and Senate and captured the majority of governorships. And it is reinforced by a massive poll released last week by Andrew Kohut and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
The survey of 2,007 people, conducted last December and January, depicts a dramatic shift in Americans’ attitudes, opinions and values between 1994, when Republicans took control of Congress, and now. Most of the change has occurred since George Bush took office in 2001.
The poll, which can be found at www.people-press.org, is a treasure trove of information about Americans’ views of the parties, government, the world scene, religion, the economy, business, labor and a dozen other topics.
The finding that will jump out at politicians and journalists is the one measuring the collapse of support for the GOP. In 2002, the number of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents – 43 percent – was identical to the 43 percent who favored the Democrats. Now, the Democrats lead 50 percent to 35 percent.
The story is one of disenchantment with Republicans, not a burst of popularity for the Democrats. The Democratic Party favorability score of 54 percent is only 4 points higher now than it was in 1994. But Republican favorability has plunged from 67 percent to 40 percent since then. Among independents, it dropped 28 points.
Why? The Republicans are blamed for the condition of the country – a blend of judgments about foreign and domestic policy. In January of 2001, when Bush took office, 55 percent of those polled said they were satisfied with the way things were going in the country. Now that number is 30 percent.
The sources of the dissatisfaction are buried in the details of the poll, but come as no surprise to anyone. It’s not, as the Clinton folks used to say, “the economy, stupid.” People are just about as satisfied with their personal financial situation now as they were in 1994, with 61 percent saying they are doing OK.
Iraq has a lot to do with the negativity. In this survey, as in others, majorities said they now think the invasion was a mistake, that the Iraq conflict has hurt the overall war on terrorism and that U.S. troops should be withdrawn as quickly as possible.
The poll also confirms what anyone who has been out in the country knows: People are fed up with Washington. Between mid-November 2001 and now, the percentage of those who said they were basically content with the federal government fell from 53 percent to 21 percent, while the percentage saying they were frustrated by it increased from 34 percent to 58 percent, and the share describing themselves as angry doubled to 16 percent.
Despite this, the survey finds significant growth in support for liberal measures that would expand the role and cost of government.
Two-thirds of those surveyed said they favor government-guaranteed health insurance, even if it means higher taxes. Seven out of 10 agree with the general proposition that government has a responsibility to take care of people who can’t care for themselves, and a similar percentage say it should guarantee every citizen a place to sleep and enough to eat. Those percentages have grown significantly since 2002, along with a belief that income inequality has gotten wider in that same time period.
If all this suggests that political opportunity is beckoning the Democrats, then the candidates at a forum in Las Vegas this weekend can take heart.
But a word of caution is in order. There is little here that suggests voters’ opinion of Democrats is much higher than it was when they lost Congress in 1994. It seems doubtful to me that Democrats can help themselves a great deal just by tearing down an already discredited Republican administration with more investigations such as the current attack on the Justice Department and White House over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
At some point, Democrats have to give people something to vote for. They know what they’re against – the Republicans.
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.