GOP CONGRESSMEN REACT TO PRESIDENT’S UNPOPULARITY

by David P. Rebovich It’s called the “six year itch.” Voters look at a President in his second term and may think about unfulfilled promises, platitudes and stale arguments, and conclude that their national government needs to be shook up. Even some of the President’s own partisans may have lost their enthusiasm for him and not turn out on Election Day. The opposition party and its candidates can get a boost from cumulative criticisms of the party in power and from some feisty presidential hopefuls who are making a case for change. Often he result is that Presidents see their party lose lots of seats in the House of Representatives, and some in the Senate, in the midterm elections in their sixth year in office. As Charlie Cook of the NATIONAL JOURNAL recently reminded his many readers, Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson and Ford (who was finishing Nixon’s second term) saw their parties lose 48, 47, and 48 seats respectively in the House in the elections in their sixth year in office. Voters must have had pretty big itches to scratch in those years. However, Reagan’s Republicans and Clinton’s Democrats were spared from such discontent in their second terms. But it is worth noting that in all of these cases, the approval ratings of the second term presidents were 48 percent or higher. Ike’s was 52 percent and LBJ’s a solid 56 percent, but several incumbent congressmen in their parties were still swept out of office. Which brings us to President George W. Bush and the prospects of his fellow Republicans to hold onto their House and Senate seats this November. If the poll numbers of the President are any indication, the GOP should be worried about its ability to retain majorities in both chambers of Congress. According to a just published AP-Ipsos Poll, Bush’s approval rating is 37 percent. This figure reflects an 8 percent decline among Republicans who believe that the President is doing an adequate job. Only 36 percent of those surveyed approve of the way Bush is dealing with domestic issues. 43 percent approve of his foreign and anti-terrorism policies. And 40 percent believe he is handling the in War in Iraq acceptably. Those are dreadful numbers by any standard this side of Richard Nixon. The Republican-controlled Congress is not doing any better. The AP-Ipsos Poll shows that two-thirds of Americans disapprove of that branch’s performance. Even 53 percent of self-identified Republicans do not give Congress a positive rating. This figure could mean that some Republicans may not bother to vote this fall. And the poor approval ratings of both President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress can energize Democratic challengers and help legitimize their claim that the nation wants and needs change in Washington. Democrats running for the House and Senate will argue that they should be elected to check an out-of-touch, incompetent President and to replace Republicans in Congress who have supported the Bush Administration’s unpopular domestic and foreign policies. It’s no mystery that from now to November Democrats will harp on such matters as the War in Iraq, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, high energy costs, port security and homeland security generally, the confusing new prescription drug programs, the need to shore up social security, cuts in education and college student loan programs, immigration problems, the big budget deficit, government ethics, and the makeup of the new Supreme Court. Many Americans are concerned, and some are very angry, about these issues. And few folks have much sympathy for Congress in all of this. In fact, for decades surveys have shown that the institution itself is not popular with Americans. It is thought to be chock full of professional politicians who pay more attention to interest groups and lobbyists than to average citizens. Congress is also regarded as slow acting, favoring posturing and debate over action on issues. Social security reform? Affordable health care? Energy independence? They’ve been discussed forever. If Americans don’t especially like Congress as an institution, they certainly do seem to like their own representatives. Typically more than 90 percent of incumbents are reelected to the House. Incumbents often run district-oriented campaigns that focus on what they have done for the folks back home, while conveniently blaming their colleagues, collectively, for the failure to enact major policies or to check an unpopular president. This simple formula is by no means fool-proof. Witness the losses suffered by incumbents in those “six year itch” elections listed above. Will Americans, and New Jerseyans especially, have a big enough itch this year to make significant changes in Congress and give the Democrats a majority in at least one chamber, most likely the House? Well, Cook, who performs careful district by district analysis across the country, sees the Democrats as having a chance to win the fifteen seats they need to gain control of the House. But he points out that this year Democrats have not been so successful in recruiting large numbers of experienced candidates with high name recognition and fund-raising ability in districts where the party should be competitive. As such, Cook is not predicting the type of changes in the House that occurred in the second-terms of Ike, LBJ, and Nixon/Ford. There are other factors that will affect the prospects of Democratic challengers and Republican incumbents this fall. An obvious one is whether Americans’ discontent with the President and his policies pushes enough voters past the tipping point, causing them to support Democratic House and Senate candidates as a protest even if this means ousting some popular incumbent Republicans. Watch for Democratic congressional challengers here in New Jersey try their best to make their races all about Bush and how Republican congressmen have helped the President hurt the nation, the state, and the district. But watch for those same incumbent Republican congressmen here and elsewhere to make the case that they are willing to stand up to the President and for their state and district and have already done so. Don’t be surprised if on the heels of the successful bipartisan rebellion against the Administration’s port security contract with the U.A.E-owned company, some GOP congressmen buck Bush on such matters as his proposed tax and spending cuts and immigration, health care, energy, environment, and education policies. And don’t be shocked if New Jersey’s six incumbent Republican congressmen are among the President’s biggest, if respectful, critics. David P. Rebovich, is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and writes monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.

GOP CONGRESSMEN REACT TO PRESIDENT’S UNPOPULARITY