Washington watches for the Democratic tide to start ebbing

POLITICS

April 05, 2009|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,paul.west@baltsun.com

Washington -The power shift that ousted the Republicans and put Democrats in charge of Washington may be approaching a turning point. Evidence is still sketchy, but the trend that favored Democrats over the past five years may have run its course.

Remember that special election for a congressional seat from New York? The one that would be the first referendum on Barack Obama's presidency and a make-or-break test for Republican National Chairman Michael Steele?

It wound up a virtual tie, snuffing out attempts to exaggerate its significance. But the returns helped illustrate the changing political scene, almost half a year after the 2008 election.

First, this is still a divided country. Even in the age of Obama, a swing district, like that one in upstate New York, can still swing Republican.

Democrats carried it in the last two elections. But if the Democratic candidate manages to pull out a victory - a risky bet, with thousands of absentee ballots yet to be counted - it will be by a hair.

Nationally, opinion surveys differ on whether the key group in the middle - independents - is moving away from the Democrats. But the Democratic voter advantage seems to have stopped expanding.

Instead, there is growing agreement that disaffected Republicans are returning to their old party, now that the era of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove is over. That's a necessary step in fashioning a turnaround that still seems a long way off.

"Republicans are in better shape now than we were in November or even January," says Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster who conducts surveys for National Public Radio. "We've seen some modest movement for Republicans on party identification."

That's not to say that "suddenly, everything's wonderful" for Republicans, he cautions. "It's not like [voters] are in love with the Republicans."

Second, bipartisanship turned out to be a mirage. Polarization is back.

In the weeks leading up to Obama's inauguration, Americans were unusually optimistic that Democrats and Republicans would work together to solve the nation's problems, polls showed. But that hasn't happened.

The more partisanship flares up in Washington, the more it is likely to stoke populist outrage among voters. If bickering intensifies, it could further anger a public already fuming over taxpayer dollars used to bail out corporations.

Meantime, a new Pew Research Center analysis finds that Obama's early job approval ratings are already the most polarized of any president in the past four decades.

"Republicans who were somewhat disposed to Obama in January and early February have moved away from him in pretty substantial numbers," says Andrew Kohut, who directs the nonpartisan Pew Center.

Third, Obama's policies are less popular than he is, polls show.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who chairs the House Democratic campaign committee, says the fate of congressional Democrats and Obama "are very closely tied together."

But with joblessness expected to run high for many months, the economy could hurt Democrats who must face voters next year, when Obama won't be on the ballot. Increasingly, Democrats in Congress may see their choice coming down to either backing Obama's ambitious and expensive agenda or saving their own necks.

"A lot of what we saw in 2008 was an Obama phenomenon," says Steve Jarding, a Democratic campaign strategist. "The Democratic Party has to be very careful, because they're living a little bit on a false pretense that somehow this Obama phenomenon reaches beyond Obama. You can't just live on those coattails."

Democrats can't rely, either, on Republicans continuing to struggle for a message or a leader. "I remember the headlines when Jimmy Carter got elected," about the Republicans being dead, he says. "Four years later, we had the Reagan revolution."

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