So here we are in the middle of the Republican convention, on the eve of the formal kickoff of the fall campaign. The convention, naturally, is all about the president and his re-election. Members of Congress are here in New York and visible, but most are secondary or tertiary figures this week. But their role in coming weeks is absolutely critical to his chances of re-election — and increasingly, to their chances of holding on to majorities in both houses. [IMGCAP(1)]
There are a couple of axioms to keep in mind. The first is presidential: An election with an incumbent running is fundamentally a referendum on the incumbent. The first and central question voters will ask in November is, “Does George W. Bush deserve another four years?” Most of the response to that question will be retrospective: how voters assess the past four years. A portion of it will be prospective: What would the next four years be like? At this convention, the president needs to frame the agenda to make people feel better about the past four years and present a concrete, believable and dynamic agenda for his second term.
Assuaging voters about the past four years, and convincing them that a real and believable agenda ahead is achievable, requires representing the president as a uniter, not a divider. That is no easy task. The convention has been framed by the Bush team to do so, in part by showcasing a stellar group of moderate superstars to personify the Bush Big Tent: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain among them. But since the Bush campaign is far more about motivating the party base than anything else, making the claim of conciliation, tolerance and bipartisanship is easier said than done. It would be much easier to affirm if the next two months showed a series of policy successes. If instead the next two months show Congress bickering, gridlocking and having House Republicans roundly condemn Senate Republicans when they don’t follow, then voters will be in a sour mood come November.
That brings us to Congress itself. Congressional elections are a mix of micro-level individual contests (or in most cases, non-contests) and macro-level trends. At the micro level, Republicans started out in strong position and remain in good shape. Democrats need a net gain of 12 seats to recapture the House. With barely 30 House seats in the hotly contestable category, pretty evenly divided between the two parties, Democrats have no chance of winning back the House without a larger trend.
In the Senate, where a net shift of one seat (if Kerry wins) or two (if Bush prevails) would put Democrats back in the saddle, the task should be easier. But with 19 seats to defend (five of them open Southern seats) and only 15 targets, Democrats have their work cut out for them. The opportunities are there, but here too it will be tough without a wind at their collective backs.
So will there be a wind? And if so, in what direction? Right now, the signs favor the Democrats. Those signs start with the ominous approval numbers on Congress. Consider the information from Gallup (shown in chart).
For the past several months, Congress has been in the dumper, with disapproval more than 50 percent. Add to these numbers the generic Congressional preference ones; Democrats have had a lead here for a long time.
Why is Congress doing so badly? We don’t have a lot of in-depth, follow-on data, but some things seem obvious. The public sees a Congress caught in partisan bickering and gridlock. If the public image in November is that of a do-nothing Congress, the wind may be a stiff one.
To be sure, partisan bickering and gridlock are two-way streets. But when one party controls the reins of power, the responsibility falls on it, like it or not. And that makes the burden on Congressional Republicans this fall an interesting and heavy one.
Republican leaders in Congress didn’t want or expect this. They expected that passage of a Medicare prescription drug bill would give them the big-ticket item that would allow them to declare victory and adjourn early — not a highly controversial law that took a series of shattered norms and procedures to pass and that is achieving few kudos among seniors (and bitter criticism from Democrats because they were shut out of the process).
And Republican leaders certainly had no appetite to confront major reform of the intelligence community and process, including tumultuous changes in their own power rankings and procedures. But pressure from the 9/11 commission, the families of victims and the large spotlight on the issue will make it hard for them to hold a few more hearings, say encouraging things and do nothing while hoping the issue fades by November.
Congressional Republicans will return to a set of daunting challenges to convince voters that they have done a lot, can work harmoniously with President Bush in a second term and will be able to get more done while diminishing the partisan bickering that has so clearly characterized the 108th Congress. They need to pass a series of laws to make that case. And they need to do so in a matter of weeks, not months. They, and Bush, have a lot riding on their fall performance.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.