The Democrats' Secret Weapon

Congressional Republicans are getting the same kind of contradictory advice that investors are getting: "Buy!" "Hold!" "Sell!" GOP lawmakers are getting whipsawed by the polls, just as investors are getting whipsawed by the stock market.

Last month, a Republican polling firm, Public Opinion Strategies, sent out a memo warning congressional Republicans that "the bottom has fallen out on the mood of the country." What pollsters found alarming was the trend on this question: "Would you say that things in the country are going in the right direction, or have they pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track?"

The percentage of Americans who say "right direction" dropped from 66 percent in January to 37 percent by mid-July. For the first time this year, "wrong track" has overtaken "right direction." In examining poll data from the past 20 years, the pollsters found a strong connection between "wrong-track" sentiment and consumer confidence. And consumer confidence is the mainstay of the economy.

In July, also for the first time all year, more Americans thought the country was headed into a recession than headed out of a recession. Several polls now show President Bush's job-approval rating at around 65 percent, down from the stratospheric ratings he enjoyed for the 10 months after 9/11.

But on July 23, White House pollster Matthew Dowd sent out a memo urging congressional Republicans not to panic. In Dowd's view, the drop in the "right-direction" number gives a misleading picture of the overall political landscape. "After 44 weeks," Dowd writes, "President Bush is still experiencing historically high approval ratings." Dowd argues that the drop in Bush's popularity was entirely predictable, the inevitable wearing off of the "rally effect" triggered by September 11. In Dowd's view, "Many pundits and politicians continue to attribute the decline to daily events or political attacks when in fact the natural historical trend ... is holding true."

That "natural historical trend," he says, should put Bush between 62 percent and 64 percent on Election Day. That's just about where the president was in mid-July.

Obviously, there's a huge gap between "right-direction" sentiment (now 37 percent in the Public Opinion Strategies survey) and Bush's job-approval rating (65 percent). The "right-direction" figure points to a serious setback for the president's party in the midterm. Yet the job-approval figure points to a strong GOP showing.

President Clinton's job approval was 46 percent at the time of the 1994 midterm. His party lost 52 House seats—a calamity for Democrats. At the time of the 1998 midterm, Clinton's rating was 66 percent. That time, the Democrats made an unexpected gain of five House seats and ended Speaker Newt Gingrich's political career—a triumph for the president's party.

How a president's party does in a midterm election is influenced by the state of the economy and the president's popularity. Right now, the economy looks like a negative for the GOP, but Bush is still very popular. So, the two factors are pulling in opposite directions. That's why Republicans are confused.

Meanwhile, Democrats don't sound confused. They believe they've got their best issue back: the economy, stupid. It has certainly brought Al Gore back into circulation. There was the Democrats' fightin' man at a party fundraiser in New York City on June 28, kicking sand in the administration's face: "They ought to wake up and realize that the Bush-Cheney economic policy is a total catastrophe for America. They ought to tear it up and start all over again!"

"Start over"? What could he possibly mean? Could he mean ... repeal the tax cut? That's the Democrats' secret longing, the policy that dare not speak its name. It sounds much better when Democrats say, "return to fiscal discipline"—meaning to the Clinton-Gore days of balanced budgets, even surpluses. "This is a chance ... to do what needs to be done to restore confidence in the market," Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., said on July 21. "'We can do that by getting the federal budget back in a disciplined state."

How? You've either got to raise taxes, which Clinton did in 1993 and which the Democrats paid for in 1994, or you've got to cut spending. On what, homeland security, the war on terror? Democrats certainly don't want to go there.

Never mind the details. Nothing can disturb the Democrats' supreme self-confidence right now. Gore gave voice to the Democrats' secret weapon at a July 20 campaign event in Tennessee when he said, "I don't care what anybody says. I think Bill Clinton and I did a damn good job." The Democrats' secret weapon is anger. Anger over corporate wrongdoing. Anger over prescription drug prices. Anger over the stock market and the economy. And maybe some lingering anger over the 2000 Florida recount.

The Public Opinion Strategies memo warns Republicans, "If the negative mood of the country is sustained over the next few months, look for GOP turnout problems." Since most people don't bother to vote in a midterm election, turnout is always crucial. Angry white men brought the Republicans to power in 1994. Angry Democrats came out to protect Clinton in 1998, after his impeachment. The Republicans' narrow House majority could be swept away by a wave of Democratic anger in 2002.