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Are Democrats Screwed in 2010?

3 years ago
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If I were a Democratic strategist reading through the latest poll covering voters' preferences for the coming congressional elections, I'd shake my head and mutter, "We're screwed." Or maybe just cry.

A few weeks ago at a breakfast with reporters, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who heads the Democrats' House campaign committee, argued that though this is a difficult year for Democrats, given the anti-incumbent fever in the electorate, the Dems will manage to maintain a majority in the House by reminding voters that they are on the side of average Americans and that Republicans have stood with Wall Street and the Bush tax cuts favoring the wealthy.
The Dems do need a smart strategy, for this year is shaping up to be a throw-the-bums-out orgy. In the past week, the victims have been bipartisan. In Utah, Republican Sen. Bob Bennett was booted by Tea Party types within the state's Republican Party. In West Virginia, the ethics-tainted Rep. Alan Mollohan was ousted by primary voters. But Dems, as the party in power, have much more to fear from anti-incumbent passions than do the GOPers. What is to be done?

Bashing the GOPers as corporate lackeys seems as good an idea as any. Voters are ticked off at Wall Street, right? The Big Finance schemers set up a casino for their own profit, and when it imploded, the rest of the economy -- our economy -- crashed, and 8 million or so Americans lost their jobs. Tie the GOPers to these scoundrels and the voters won't dare go for Republicans. And it's not hard to make such a connection. The House Republicans en masse voted against the Wall Street reform bill last fall.

But getting back to that aforementioned poll -- which was conducted for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal -- there's a slight problem: Americans don't see Democrats as championing their needs over those of corporate interests. The poll asked, when it comes to "problems in the financial markets," are Democrats in Congress "more concerned about the interests of average American or more concerned about the interests of large corporations?" Thirty-five percent said the D's are working for average Joe and Jane; 53 percent put the Dems in the corporate camp.

The Republicans fared worse: 20 percent of those surveyed said GOPers care about commoners; 71 percent said Republicans are champions for corporate interests. But the salient fact is that most Americans don't perceive the Democrats as truly on their side. Not even after the Democratic House passed Wall Street reform and bashed health insurance companies? Not even. (Remember all those earlier bailouts?) How well can a we're-fighting-for-you-against-corporate-interests strategy work, if most voters don't buy the basic premise?

There's other bad news in this poll for Democrats -- which isn't news, for most polls these days contain discouraging indicators for congressional Democrats. Fifty-six percent of Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track. Only 21 percent approve of the job that Congress is doing. (Both of these numbers have been relatively steady since last summer.) Americans have a more favorable impression of GM than of the Democratic Party. But the Democrats do score better than BP and Goldman Sachs.

In theory, running as economic populists could boost Democrats in tough economic times and help them cope with anti-incumbent anger. But for this to work, they obviously need to sharpen their messages -- and their actions. Is there time for that?

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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