Bush's Skunktails

In contrast to a president's coattails that sweep his party to congressional victories, skunktails have the reverse effect. Bush's skunktails consist of abuses of power, corruption, and incompetence now so widely recognized that, according to recent polls, those who “strongly disapprove” of his administration now equal those who merely “approve.” Because turnout in midterm elections depends largely on intensity of preference, Bush's malodorous tails would seem to bode well for Democrats who need to win six more seats in the Senate and 15 in the House in order to take back Congress.

But there is an asymmetry of consequence between Republican and Democratic skunktails. Even before George W. came to Washington, Republican voters had low expectations of government. Presumably then, the fiascos of Katrina, Iraq, the Social Security drug benefit, the Bush fiscal policy, vote-buying and sweetheart deals with corporations, spying on Americans, Abu Ghraib, and the Dubai port deal, to list only a few of the misadventures of the last five years and three months, have not especially shocked Republicans. They have confirmed established Republican dogma that government cannot do anything well and is not to be trusted. Democratic voters' aspirations for government are higher. Although Democrats have not shared Bush's goals, the overall ineptitude and self-dealing that has marked his efforts may have caused Democratic voters to become more disillusioned about the capacities of government in general, thereby jeopardizing Democratic aspirants for Congress as much as Republican incumbents.

Recent polls from the Pew Research Center seem to confirm this. The public's negative feelings toward Congress are high and strikingly nonpartisan. Unfavorable ratings of both parties are at their highest levels since 1992, and the view of Congress as an institution is at its lowest point in over a decade -- 47 percent viewing it unfavorably and only 44 percent favorable. This marks a major change from as recently as January 2001, when 64 percent of the public expressed a favorable view of Congress.

Anti-incumbent sentiments are running unusually high this year regardless of party affiliation. Forty-nine percent of registered voters say most members should not be returned to office, up from 38 percent in October 2002. Thirty-six percent of independents say they don't want the incumbent in their district reelected. That's as high a level as it was in October of 1994, just before Congress flipped to Republican control. But disgruntlement also runs high in Democratic ranks even within traditionally Democratic districts. Fully 31 percent of Democrats believe their representative should not be reelected, compared to nearly 20 percent in previous midterms. Only 18 percent of Republican voters say their representative should not be reelected.

More generally, the public has turned even more deeply cynical about government than it was at the start of the Bush administration. Excepting the months immediately following 9-11, confidence in Washington to do what's right “just about always” or “most of the time” has plunged since Bush took over the White House. Only 34 percent of the electorate now takes this positive view, while 65 percent now say they “never” or “only sometimes” trust government to do what's right. (By way of contrast, in 1964, 76 percent of the public trusted government just about always or most of the time, while 22 percent never or only sometimes did.)

Cynicism about government is the single most important attribute of conservative Republicanism. Hopefulness about government's capacity to improve the lives of Americans has been the defining theme of Democrats since Franklin D. Roosevelt. That the Bush administration has succeeded so dramatically in deepening the pool of cynicism will stand as its greatest contribution to the Republican cause, and its most lethal assault on Democrats.

Ronald Reagan told America that government was the problem, but, ironically, his presidency enhanced the stature of his office and of government. Reagan thereby reversed the cynical trend that began with Vietnam and Watergate. By 1988, the public was notably less cynical about government (58 percent trusting it only sometimes or never) than it had been in 1980 (73 percent), marking a significant setback for conservative Republicanism.

George W. Bush has not made the same mistake. He has demeaned his office, reduced the capacity of government to govern, and undermined public trust. His skunktails may reach some Republican incumbents next November, but the danger is their stench may be strong enough to extend much farther, and for many years to come.

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