Friday, January 19, 2007

Dem Congress is on a roll--new poll numbers prove it

Republicans and RedStaters can stew and gripe all they like about the House bills passed in the wake of the first 100 42 (!) hours of Congressional activity--but the fact is that the American people are with us.

A new LA Times/Bloomberg poll shows that approval ratings on Congress--once mired as low as 16%--have risen substantially, and that there is massive public support for the bills passed by the House.

Indeed, there's so much good stuff in here that it will be difficult for me to cleave to fair use guidelines, but I'll give it my best shot.

First off, the article gives Democrats credit for taking the lead on bipartisanship by promoting bills that attracted widespread Republican support, as opposed to the bitter party-line divided battles that ensued during GOP control. Not an extraordinary accomplishment, but I believe we can legitimately add "bipartisanship" as a feather in our cap: after all, if you're passing legislation that the vast majority of the American people support, and forcing the other party to vote with you or face daunting re-election battles, I would call that a great move toward bipartisanship. It's easy to be bipartisan when you're actually doing the work of the people, instead of giving massive handouts to corporate lobbying interests.

As for the Congressional approval rating? Well, it's up to 36%:

Overall, the poll found 36% approve of how Congress is doing its job — hardly a mandate, but up from 30% in September.

36% isn't pretty--but I would say that it's a HELL of a lot better than 16%. And we've barely gotten started.

As for the individual issues tackled by the new congress, well, it's a public opinion landslide as we knew it would be:

The student-loan rate cut that passed the House on Wednesday was supported by 79% of those polled.

Legislation aimed at lowering prices in Medicare's prescription drug program, which passed the House last week, was backed by 80%.

Repealing tax breaks for big oil companies, which the House approved Thursday, was supported by 61%.

An expansion of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, passed by the chamber last week, was backed by 59%.

The most popular item was the push to increase the federal minimum wage, which under the House bill would rise over two years to $7.25 an hour from $5.15. The increase, which would be the first in a decade, was supported by 81% of those surveyed — including 66% of self-described conservatives.

I think it's important to re-read that last statistic: 66% of self-described conservatives supported the minimum wage increase. That support level is higher than support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq was at any point in the entire history of the debacle. I think it's safe to say at this point that any pundit or blogger who still opposes the minimum wage increase can be safely dismissed as so far out of the American mainstream that they should be taken as seriously as your average LaRouchie. That John Stossel, David Brooks or 2/3 of the editorial of the National Review still have jobs shows just how out of the warped is the political debate in Washington D.C.

In the meantime, while approval ratings for Democrats in general have gone up only very slightly, disapproval ratings have decreased sharply:

The new poll indicates a less critical view of congressional Democrats among the public — although their favorable rating is virtually unchanged at 42%, compared to 40% in September; their unfavorable rating was 32%, down from 41%.

This may not seem like much, but it's a big deal. You have to decrease the disapprovals created by negative media-induced perceptions before your approvals can begin to climb. So far, so good.

And what about Pelosi herself--that craaaaaazy nanny-state-living liberal San-Francisco values hippie that the right tried to run their entire congressional campaign against? She has a +13 percentage point approval rating that continues to improve even as her "unknown" numbers fall dramatically:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), in the news spotlight since the November elections as the first woman to lead either congressional chamber, remains little known to many Americans but has made some headway in raising her national profile.

Among those with an opinion, 34% viewed her favorably, 21% unfavorably. Still, 41% of those surveyed said they had not heard enough about her to have an opinion. In December, that figure was 50%; in September, 63%.


So what is the bad news? Not much, really, in the way of bad news for the present--but a good deal in the way of challenges for the future. But it is heartening to note that the challenges Democrats face in all cases point not to public doubts about progressive causes, but rather to concerns that Democrats will not stand resolutely or effectively ENOUGH for progressive causes. In other words, to make a somewhat gross oversimplification (the left-right axis doesn't really describe these issues very well, but it can serve as adequately comprehensible shorthand in this instance), the American Public actually stands to the left of Democrats on most of the major issues of the day--and it's worried that Democrats won't stand with them.

If you're a Progressive Democrat, that's cause for satisfaction if not celebration; if you're DLC or a Republican, that's cause for some serious heartburn.

And what are these issues? First and foremost, the ongoing occupation of the civil war in Iraq:

It found that pressure is especially high for Democrats to change course in Iraq; 45% identified the war as the most important issue for the new Congress to address, a far higher figure than for any other issue.

"If they just tackle this war and get these boys home, they will be doing good," said Jerry Alexander, a retired car salesman in Savannah, Tenn., who is an independent. "They better, because that's what they were elected for."

Just how to accomplish that objective has been the subject of gallons of pixellated ink, as it were, and I'm not going to suggest a course of action here. But the point is clear: It would be difficult for Democrats to take TOO STRONG a stand on opposing further involvement in Iraq. The people EXPECT Democrats to take strong measures to at the very least give the appearance of getting something done about bringing our troops home--if not actually using congressional funding or other measures to help accomplish that goal. Iraq continues to dominate the public discourse, and the people want some tangible results from Democrats in that regard, even if Bush Cheney does have ultimate control of the Armed Forces (which most people do realize).

The second major issue is proving to voters that Congress really HAS cleaned up its ethical act:

Almost three-quarters of those surveyed — 72% — supported House-passed ethics reforms to ban gifts from lobbyists and require disclosure of pork-barrel projects. But only 27% said they believed such measures would make a real difference; 60% said they expect business as usual in the way Capitol Hill operates.

"My experience ... is that there have been reforms, but there always seems to be new or expanding loopholes people find," said Bauder.

If the Democrats' legislative bulldogs of reform ultimately turn out to be as toothless as McCain-Feingold, all of our high-profile legislation and forceful rhetoric will have been for naught--and may backfire. Our greatest challenge in this area will be to keep our promises, keep our noses clean--and above all, when we see loopholes being exploited (as with the 527s in the wake of McCain-Feingold), to close them ruthlessly and with enough fanfare to show the public we mean business.

The third and final challenge? A vague one, but important: establishing a clear brand identity.

But only 25% of those surveyed believed Democrats have formulated a clear direction for the country; 58% said they had failed to.

The bills of the first 100 hours are a great start. Standing strong on opposing the Occupation of Iraq and on ethics reform will be a great help. Above all, improving these numbers will be an issue of flag-planting. To quote Thomas Schaller on page 231 of his outstanding new book Whistling Past Dixie, which I heartily recommend to everyone here:

How can the Democratic Party reinvent its brand and, in the process, begin to discredit the Republican identity? The best way to develop a brand is with what might be called flag-planting: Taking a firm, nonnegotiable position on issues and affirming that position repeatedly. Doing so will always turn away some voters, but the resolve shown by planting flags and standing vigilantly to defend them not only helps unify and motivate the party's base but gains the respect of moderates and independents who, though perhaps disagreeing on the particulars of the policy defended, will show gruding respect for resoluteness.

Many of you will detect shades of the Overton Window in the preceding paragraph--and as you well you should. If we stand resolute on ethics, on Iraq, on protecting our resources, investing in America's future and promoting the common good, we'll do just fine. With any luck, we may get that congressional approval rating about 50% one day.

In any case, however, these numbers are great news for the Democratic Party--and even better news for the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party.

What we need more than anything now is the cooperation of our colleagues in the Senate to pass without serious compromise what the House has put forward--and the guts to continue to stand on principle even on issues where the polls aren't as overwhelmingly in our favor.

If we stick to our guns, we can undo much of the damage not only to the country, but even to the much maligned reputation of the American government itself. And that's something to be thankful for.


Post a Comment

<< Home