You can’t blame Democrats for feeling optimistic. In 2005, George W. Bush staggered through as rough a stretch as any modern president has experienced. From his botched response to Hurricane Katrina to mounting American casualties in Iraq, from his refusal to outlaw tortureto revelations that he authorized no-warrant wiretapping in probable violation of the law, Bush is looking battered and vulnerable. Surely the Democrats can take advantage of that in 2006 by grabbing back one or both branches of Congress. Right?
Well, don’t get your hopes up. Last week, as the furor over the wiretapping story was reaching a crescendo, the results of the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll were released. Believe it or not, they showed that the president’s approval rating had actually leaped up, from a Nixon-esque 39 percent in early November to an anemic-but-definitely-breathing 47 percent.
How could this be? Bill Clinton — a Democrat who knows how to win — put it best. “When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody who’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right,” he said at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Unfortunately, there’s little question that many Americans today see Democrats as weak, if not necessarily right. And thank you, Nancy Pelosi and Jay Rockefeller, for reminding everyone of that when you whined pathetically about how you’ve been troubled by the wiretaps all along but didn’t think you could say anything.
Still, at both the national and state levels, 2006 is shaping up as the best opportunity the Democrats have had in a long time to make significant gains. If the party is going to turn opportunity into success, though, it’s going to have to change its ways — and, so far, there’s little sign of that happening. Believing that 2006 will be a good year for the Democratic Party may not be completely irrational. But as Samuel Johnson once said, it amounts to the triumph of hope over experience.
Columnist Richard Reeves created a stir recently when he wrote that a survey of nearly 500 historians revealed that the overwhelming majority believe Bush is a failed president — and that 50 rate him as the worst ever. It turned out that the survey, conducted by the History News Network, was some 19 months old. But surely few of those surveyed would have been likely in the interim to revise their opinion of the Bush presidency upward.
Yet despite all his failures and perverse policy priorities, Bush is unlikely to implode. Not only is Bush’s smear-and-fear spinning apparatus unparalleled, but he’s got Congress on his side, a situation that will likely remain unchanged after the November ’06 elections (see below). The religious right continues to be strongly in his corner — and that support may only intensify, now that a federal judge has come down on the side of science and against creationism — er, “intelligent design” — in a landmark public-school decision in Pennsylvania. Bush will probably survive his grotesque excesses on the national-security front because he’s been able to transform the federal judiciary into a presidential-protection program. Samuel Alito, a reliable supporter of sweeping executive power, will provide him with additional insurance on the Supreme Court.