Political Pulse March 2006

Discontent Is Again in Season

Anti-incumbent sentiment is growing, just as it did in the early 1990's.
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"Hillary Clinton seems to have a lot of anger," Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said last month. Within the GOP, that's becoming the party line on the New York senator, the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

As it happens, a lot of voters are angry right now. But they're not the ones who angrily rallied behind Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, and Newt Gingrich in the early 1990s.

In a mid-February Gallup poll, taken for USA Today and CNN, 61 percent of Americans said President Bush had done something to make them angry. A separate sample was asked, are you generally content with the way things are going in the country, or is there something you are angry about? The result was about the same: 59 percent said they were angry about something.

Bush has resumed the slide in the polls that was hurting his administration last fall. In November, 60 percent of Americans disapproved of the job he was doing, according to Gallup. So he barnstormed the country to try to sell his plan for Iraq, his energy independence plan, and his commitment to national security. Bush's numbers did go up a bit—for a while.

Now they're down again, to 60 percent disapproval in this month's Gallup Poll. Only 38 percent give Bush positive marks. These results are consistent with those of other polls taken in the last two weeks: Bush's approval rating ranged from a high of 40 percent in a poll taken by RT Strategies for The Cook Political Report, to 38 percent in a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, to a startling 34 percent in a CBS News poll.

What are people angry about? Three news stories, one after another, all bad for Bush.

First, Iraq. The situation there is deteriorating. Nearly three-quarters of Americans told Gallup that they expect a major civil war in Iraq. Result? More and more Americans see the war as a mistake.

Second, the ports deal. The idea of allowing a company owned by an Arab government to operate U.S. ports seems to defy common sense. The public opposes the deal by nearly 4-to-1 (66 percent to 17 percent in the Gallup Poll). Result? Bush's approval rating on handling the threat of terrorism has dropped 7 points in the past three weeks, from 54 percent to 47 percent. Bush has lost his advantage on his signature issue.

Republicans won the 2002 and 2004 elections on the terrorism issue. In January, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove signaled his intention to make terrorism the centerpiece of the GOP's campaign again this year. But the ports deal, like the defense deal with India, exposes the White House to criticism that the president is putting commercial considerations ahead of national security. That's why many Republicans are abandoning the White House on those issues.

Third, Hurricane Katrina. The Associated Press released damaging videotapes that show disaster officials warning Bush about the dangers posed by the approaching storm. The president's response, captured on tape: "I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are fully prepared." Result? Nearly 60 percent of Americans say Bush cannot manage the government effectively. Bush's image of competence is gone.

In the early 1990s, angry white men were the big political story. They got angry with President George H.W. Bush, and a lot of them voted for independent Perot for president in 1992. Then they got angry at President Clinton, and voted to throw the Democrats out of Congress. Could anger now benefit the Democrats?

The public does not think that either party has a clear plan for solving the nation's problems, according to Gallup. Nevertheless, Democrats lead Republicans by 14 points (53 percent to 39 percent) when voters are asked how they would vote for Congress. Among the angry voters, the Democrats' lead is even bigger.

Anti-incumbent sentiment is growing, just as it did in the early 1990s. Then, most incumbents were Democrats; now, Republicans are in control, so anti-incumbent sentiment endangers them. If angry voters do vote Democratic, it won't be because they have confidence in the Democrats. Angry voters want to throw the bums out. That's an old American tradition.

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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