Perhaps 'Nothing' Actually Can Win

There's a lot of buzz in Washington about a tidal wave coming—not from the Potomac River but from the Democrats. Many experts think midterm elections are a referendum on the president. That's why Republicans are worried.

In nine national polls taken since the beginning of March, 36 percent of Americans, on average, approve of the way President Bush is handling his job. That's 10 points lower than President Clinton's job-approval rating in November 1994, when a Republican tidal wave hit.

Is there a Democratic tsunami coming this November? There are clear warning signs. Bush's job rating is one of them. Another is the job rating that the public gives Congress: an average of 33 percent approval in six polls since the beginning of March. People think that the Republican-controlled Congress isn't doing its job. The House can't pass a budget; the Senate can't pass immigration legislation. So what do people see happening in Congress? Behavior like that of convicted felon and former Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif.; convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff; and indicted Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

"Last night, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay blamed Democrats for his fall from power," Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said on the House floor on April 4. "He said Democrats were upset because Republicans changed the culture of Washington. Well, Republicans changed the culture around here, all right. Two of Congressman DeLay's former aides have already pleaded guilty as part of the ongoing Jack Abramoff scandal."

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"Another 1994?" Republicans protest. "That's unlikely." For one thing, there are fewer vulnerable House incumbents these days. Republicans have built seawalls in the form of safe districts to protect themselves from a tidal wave. On the other hand, back in 1994, Republicans needed to gain 40 seats to take over the House. This year, Democrats need to pick up only 15 seats, so they don't need as big a wave.

In 1994, Republicans promoted their Contract With America as a positive alternative. They still claim the advantage of a big agenda. "Our party will continue to succeed because we're the party of ideas," Bush said last week. What positive alternative have the Democrats offered? Last month, congressional Democrats ceremoniously unveiled their "real security" plan "to protect America." Did you miss it? As it happens, most Americans missed the Contract With America in 1994.

The evidence is from a Gallup poll taken for USA Today and CNN a few weeks after the 1994 election. The survey asked, "Nearly all Republican candidates for Congress recently signed a statement about their political goals, which they call a Contract With America. Have you heard of this Contract With America before now?" Nearly two-thirds said no. "The Republicans in 1994 made [the contract] into the myth that it became," says political historian Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.

Some observers say that you can't beat something with nothing. They might be wrong. If people are angry enough at something, they'll vote for something different, even if they're not entirely sure what it is. Anger at Clinton was the force that drove the 1994 tidal wave. That was the year of angry white men. And this year? "There's plenty of anger out there," Hess says. The question is whether that anger can be sustained for the next seven months.

It's a venerable American tradition to "throw the bums out." And the desire to do just that is gaining momentum this year. Since Washington is now a Republican town, most of the "bums" are Republicans. In the past, Republicans have relied on the national security issue to save them. But the latest Associated Press/Ipsos poll indicates that Republicans have lost their advantage on national security. Forty-one percent of voters say they trust Republicans more to protect the country; an identical percentage say they trust Democrats more.

In four polls taken over the past month, Democrats averaged a double-digit lead when registered voters were asked how they would vote in congressional races. On average, 51 percent said they would vote for the Democratic candidate and 39 percent said they would vote for the Republican. Does that mean the country is moving to the left? No. It means voters are in the mood to throw the bums out.