Political Pulse September 2006

Morphing Into Angry Voters

The early 1990s saw a wave of term-limit laws and anti-incumbent voting. Could voter concerns about Iraq, the economy, gas prices, and immigration trigger a repeat in 2006 and 2008?

Remember the early 1990s? That was when a huge wave of voter anger swept the country.

Republican president broke his pledge on taxes. "Read my lips—no new taxes!" President George H.W. Bush promised at the Republican National Convention in 1988, only to go back on his word two years later.

A Democratic president and a Democratic Congress could not deliver on another pledge. President Clinton made it to a joint session of Congress in September 1993 when he said, "Before this Congress adjourns next year, you will pass, and I will sign, a new law to create health security for every American."

In 1992, women and liberals were angry over how Anita Hill had been treated the year before at the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings on Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. It was the Year of the Woman. In 1994, conservatives were angry over gun control laws and gays in the military. It was the year of the Angry White Men.

In 1992, the House banking scandal outraged voters of all persuasions. Seventy-seven representatives resigned or decided not to seek re-election. In 1994, the Democratic majority in the House was overthrown after 40 years. Thirty-four representatives were defeated.

At the time of the 1992 election, only 26 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with the way things were going in the country, according to the Gallup Poll. Pessimism was almost as widespread in 1994, when 30 percent were satisfied with the country's direction.

By comparison, the late 1990s were happy times. The economy was booming. Nobody seemed to threaten the United States. At the time of the 1998 midterm elections, Gallup reported that 60 percent of the voters were satisfied with the way things were going. That's one reason Clinton survived the impeachment furor—and Newt Gingrich didn't. In 2000, satisfaction was nearly as high: 58 percent. Vice President Gore didn't quite win the White House, but he did get at least 540,000 more votes than George W. Bush.

Where do things stand with voters in 2006? In the August Gallup Poll, 28 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with the way things are going in the country. That's about the same as in the Angry Voter years of the early '90s and is nowhere close to the high satisfaction levels of the late '90s.

In the early '90s, it was clear what voters were angry about: "The economy, stupid." Now, international issues—Iraq, terrorism—top the list of voter concerns in the latest CNN poll. But there's plenty of anger over such domestic issues as gas prices and immigration. The economy? Yes, that's high on the list. Although the economy as a whole has been growing, working people have not made many gains. "While median household incomes grew by 1.1 percent," the Census Bureau reported last week, "real median earnings of men and women working full time all year declined between 2004 and 2005."

How can incomes go up if wages have been going down? Because the gains in income are happening at the very top. The growing economy is not benefiting most workers. "Executives are taking more and more of a share out of a company's earnings," noted Andy Serwer of Fortune, "and that's leaving fewer dollars for the average American."

What about the more than 5.7 million jobs that the White House boasts have been created in the past three years? "They're service-sector jobs," Serwer says, "not the high-paying union and manufacturing jobs that many Americans enjoyed from the 1940s to the 1970s."

The early '90s saw a wave of term-limit laws and anti-incumbent voting. This year, several prominent incumbents have already gone down to defeat in primaries, including Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, who is a Republican. Remember the ads in 1994 that showed Democrats "morphing" into the unpopular President Clinton? We're beginning to see ads that show politicians "morphing" into the unpopular President Bush.

In 1992, independent presidential candidate Ross Perot suddenly emerged and gave voice to voter anger over trade and the deficit. Outsourcing, immigration, and the pay slump are the kinds of issues that could fuel an independent candidate in 2008. What about the federal budget deficit? It's bigger than ever.

Presented by

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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