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2006 Ought to Be Great for Democrats, But Can They Deliver?

It’s hard to tell who’s in worse political shape right now: President Bush or Congressional Democrats. Polls show deep skepticism with Bush, but it’s not clear that Democrats can take advantage. [IMGCAP(1)]

Historically speaking, the 2006 midterm elections should be a bonanza for Democrats. Since World War II, the party out of power has picked up an average of 34 House and five Senate seats in a president’s sixth year in office.

Polls indicate that Bush is now presiding over an unpopular war, and that’s almost always bad for the incumbent party.

An early August Gallup poll showed that, by 54 percent to 44 percent, Americans now think it was a mistake to invade Iraq. Fifty-seven percent believe the war has made America less safe in the war on terrorism. Fifty-six percent want to withdraw some troops and 33 percent, the highest percentage yet, want full withdrawal.

In 1950, the Korean War had just begun, and only 20 percent of Americans believed that fighting it was a mistake. Yet President Harry Truman’s Democrats lost 29 House seats and six Senate seats.

In 1952, when 52 percent of the country was against the war and the country was electing President Dwight Eisenhower, Democrats lost another 22 House seats and two Senate seats.

In 1966, only 31 percent thought that the Vietnam War was a mistake. Still, Democrats lost 47 House and four Senate seats.

In 1970, with 56 percent of the country against the war, Richard Nixon’s GOP lost 12 House seats, while gaining two in the Senate.

Incumbent parties also tend to lose big when the public is dissatisfied with the economy. In the midst of a recession in 1958, Eisenhower’s Republicans lost 48 House and 13 Senate seats.

The United States certainly is not in a recession right now. To the contrary, as Bush pointed out after meeting with his economic advisers last week, the economy grew 3.4 percent in the second quarter of 2005 — the ninth straight quarter of growth exceeding 3 percent.

The economy has added 4 million jobs since the current recovery started in mid-2003 and, contrary to Democratic propaganda, Bush has presided over net growth during his presidency of 1.3 million jobs. Even in his first term, 350,000 new jobs were created.

But somehow Bush has been unable to make Americans think the economy is in good shape. According to an August ABC News/Washington Post poll, the public, by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin, considers the economy “not good” or “poor,” although 59 percent believe that their own personal finances are “excellent” or “good.”

An August Newsweek poll showed that by 52 percent to 40 percent the public disapproves of Bush’s handling of the economy. Sixty-one percent of voters disapproved of his handling of Iraq, and his overall approval was at 42 percent, its lowest ever.

All this should be good news for Democrats. And there’s more. The average of polls on approval of Congress is just 31 percent, and Democrats enjoy an average 6-point advantage on the generic Congressional ballot question.

On top of all this, Democrats may have an opportunity to gain from the scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a close friend of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and the alleged Bush administration exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Scandals are always good for out-parties, as the 1974 and 1994 landslides show.

So, what’s wrong with Democratic prospects? First, Bush and Congressional Republicans are in power, can get things done and have lots of bully pulpits. If they can figure out how to better communicate their achievements, they can highlight their energy and transportation bills, tort reform and the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Communications won’t improve Bush’s Iraq problem. That will depend on political and military successes that, for now, seem elusive.

The Democrats’ dilemma is this: Even if the public is fed up with the GOP and anxious to scratch a six-year itch, Congressional district gerrymandering — in which the Democrats are complicit — makes only 35 or so House races truly competitive under normal circumstances.

That’s certainly enough to deliver power to the Democrats, but it’s going to take a massive pro-Democratic wave to achieve a turnaround akin to what the Republicans accomplished in 1994.

Worse, two recent studies show that Democrats are in trouble with key groups. The liberal Democracy Corps concluded from focus groups that “a large chunk of white non-college voters, particularly in rural areas, will remain simply unreachable for Democrats.”

That’s partly because they side with conservatives on cultural issues and national security. But also, “the unity Democrats showed in opposing President Bush’s Social Security privatization plans was an important first step for a party seen as weak and standing for nothing, although it also served to reinforce the belief among many red state and rural voters that Democrats … have no positive agenda.”

An analysis for Third Way, a group of centrist Senate Democrats, showed that Republicans clobbered Democrats among white middle-class voters in 2004 and made inroads among middle-class Hispanics. “The self-described party of the middle class has a crisis with the middle class,” the study concluded.

Democrats should be able to make gains in 2006 based simply on history. But for now, significant gains seem out of reach because they’re trying to fight something with nothing.