Tapping into Voter Anger
If you need proof that Americans are unhappy about their government right now, look no further than The New York Times bestseller list. Among the top nonfiction hardcover books for the week of Nov. 23 are Michael Moore's "Dude, Where's My Country?"; Al Franken's "Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them)"; Sen. Zell Miller's (D-Ga.) "A National Party No More"; and Bill O Reilly's "Who's Looking Out for You?"
There are other, more telling signs that voters are mad. Polls show that 50 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Then there is the success of presidential candidate Howard Dean, who has gone from insurgent to frontrunner within the space of a few months. And there is no mistaking the anti-incumbent mood that swept Gov. Gray Davis (D-Calif.) from office and ousted the ruling parties from governors' mansions in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Voter anger is nothing new in American politics. In bad economic times, Americans tend to vote their pocket books and send the president packing. In 1992, the public took out its frustration on President George H.W. Bush, largely due to his indifference to the sagging economy. Two years later, voters unhappy with the Clinton administration's positions on issues such as guns and health care gave the GOP control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
In 1998, Minnesotans rejected the two major-party nominees and elected wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor. At the national level during the same year, voters expressed their unhappiness with the partisan impeachment process by bucking historical trends and electing more lawmakers from the president's party to Congress in the midterm election. And last fall, Maryland voters ended 36 years of Democratic rule by electing Republican Rep. Robert Ehrlich as governor.
This mood of uncertainty is unlikely to end anytime soon. And Republicans, as the majority party in Washington, may pay the heaviest price for this nation-wide ire. GOP pollster Frank Luntz recently told USA Today, "I know anger when I hear it and this is not limited to California." Democratic consultant Bill Carrick warned the Sacramento Bee last month, "This is not the end of voter unrest. This is the beginning."
If Republicans lose control of the White House in 2004, it may simply be an extension of the current anti-incumbent trend. American voters have demonstrated time and again their willingness to punish leaders in office by voting for their opposition. Reelections are just as often a referendum on an incumbent's term in office as a chance to embrace someone new.
In terms of fulfilling its campaign promises, the Bush administration's record is less than stellar. President Bush never delivered on his pledge to be "a uniter, not a divider." Brought into office by a Supreme Court 5-4 ruling, he governed as though he had a conservative mandate.
And even though Bush has the worst jobs record of any president since Herbert Hoover, his one-note theme of tax cuts has done little to revive the sagging economy while creating a half a trillion-dollar budget deficit. Of those surveyed, 54 percent told The Los Angeles Times that the nation's economy is worse today than it was four years ago; just 18 percent said it is doing better.
Republicans on the Hill have not tried to work across party lines, either. Just last week, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) held open a roll call vote for almost three hours to ensure the passage of the GOP's Medicare reform bill. The party has been just as intolerant of dissent from within -- for example, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who was dubbed a Franco-Republican earlier this year for questioning the size of Bush's tax cut.
The White House's unwillingness to hear other views has sent a message to voters that unless you're part of the conservative base, your views simply don't count. Bush's my-way-or-the-highway approach is unlikely to play well with American voters who want politicians of both parties to work together.
The most obvious example of increasing voter unhappiness is, of course, Bush's Iraq policy, which is now affecting his personal ratings. A recent Time poll found that 44 percent of voters think that Bush is a leader they can trust, but 54 percent said they have doubts and reservations about his honesty. If the weapons of mass destruction never materialize, if body bags keep stacking up and if there's no sign that U.S. forces can leave the country quickly, Iraq could become Bush's albatross in the 2004 campaign.
Despite Bush's focus on Iraq, just 8 percent of those surveyed by The Los Angeles Times named it as the most pressing problem facing the country (compared to 60 percent who cited the economy and jobs and 27 percent who named terrorism as their number one issue). And the Time poll showed that 48 percent of voters think it is somewhat or very unlikely they will vote to reelect Bush. Each of these numbers gives fresh hope for a Democratic victory in 2004.
Raging Against the White House
While all of the Democrats have criticized Bush, Dean has been the most successful at picking up on voter angst. He's consistently drawn huge crowds, raked in two of the largest union endorsements and has the most cash available, enough to become the first Democrat in a primary election to reject public financing. He's also been the loudest and angriest in attacking Bush.
Dean, not surprisingly, believes the wave of voter anger could help carry him to the White House. After Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory in California's recall election last month, Dean noted, "Tonight the voters in California directed their frustration with the country's direction on their incumbent governor." Come next November, Dean hopes that the same anger will be directed at a different incumbent -- the one sitting in the White House.
Other candidates who want to emulate Dean's success in the polls are trying to prove that they too are mad. When Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) was asked recently whether he is angry enough to be president, he told The Washington Post, "You can't find two Americans who are more angry about George Bush's presidency than Al Gore and me." Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is planning to adopt an angrier approach in hopes of saving his candidacy.
One danger for the candidates is that in trying to secure the Democratic nomination, they will do permanent damage to each other's candidacy. Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), for example, is attacking Dean in order to better his chances in the Iowa caucuses.
With so many candidates trying to distinguish themselves in a crowded field, it will be difficult to stay focused on the common goal of making Bush a one-term president. Another potential pitfall is that Democrats will be seen as too angry to govern effectively; that their anti-Bush message will crowd out any positive plans they have for the country.
If used effectively, anger can be a powerful motivator. Reminding voters of what Bush has and has not done in office is a surefire way to get the Democratic base excited enough to show up at the polls. Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) rumored plans to run for Senate may well be a godsend for Democrats. Who better to represent the image of voters being denied their right to be heard than the former Florida secretary of state who stopped the election recount to ensure that her candidate won?
The most effective strategy to energize the Democrats will be to remind voters what is at stake in the coming election: the future of the Supreme Court, Americans civil liberties, and the rising casualties in Iraq. If Bush wins another term in office, and Republicans keep control of Congress, Bush will likely be even bolder in his policy proposals. As Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has suggested, Bush will probably tackle Social Security, now that he has succeeded with Medicare.
Of course, Democratic votes alone will not end Bush's administration. Candidates need to appeal to independents and those Republicans (especially moderates) who want a new approach to government. So Democrats would be wise to follow the strategy devised by Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign: Be angry but hopeful.
Schwarzenegger's campaign song was "We're Not Gonna Take It;" Clinton's was "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." Democrats need to craft a message that includes both themes in order to tap into one of the most powerful forces in American politics.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.