Baseless Confidence

What’s behind the president’s, and the Congressional Republicans’, poll drop? All the bad news that’s been noted, from Iraq and Katrina to high spending and immigration. What’s behind the bad decisions made in those areas? Detachment from the ground.

Power is distancing.

When you’ve been in Congress for a while, or the White House for a while, you both forget too many things and learn too many things.

You forget why they sent you. You forget it’s not that you’re charming and wonderful. You forget it’s not you. You become immersed in a Washington conversation, a political conversation, that is, by definition, unlike the normal human conversation back home. To survive and thrive, national politicians have to speak two languages, Here and Home. Actually it’s more than two languages, it’s two cultures. It’s hard to straddle cultures.

But even as you forget a lot, you learn a lot. You get crammed into your head the political realities on the ground around you—how big the minority Democratic bloc in the House really is, how many votes the other team has in what committee, where to go for legal money, how the press will react to any given decision or statement.

In time you know a lot of things the people who sent you to Washington don’t know. And you come to forget what they do know. It used to be easy for you to remember that, because it’s what you knew too.

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Republicans inside and outside Washington are right when they say Republican leaders take a daily pounding in the press. They do. They’re right when they say this causes attrition. It does. They’re right when they say history handed the Republicans a unique challenge in 9/11 and after.

But it’s also true that the administration and the Congress are losing their base, and it isn’t because of the media. Republicans on the ground love to defy the MSM. When the media dislike their guy, they take it as proof their guy is good.

Of all the bad poll numbers for the Republicans, I think the worst is the right track/wrong track numbers, which continue to trend downward. A majority of the American people think we’re on the wrong track. How can this be when the American economy is in a boom? When the Dow Jones Industrial Average is approaching its all-time high, when annual growth is almost 5%, when unemployment is low, and so is inflation? (People don’t talk much about inflation anymore, but in the 1970s and early ‘80s it was the thief in the night that kept America sleepless. They could almost feel the worth of their savings going down with each tick of the clock. It was more disruptive, more damaging to a sense of security, than street crime. It is an unnoticed achievement that it has been so low so long.)

There are many reasons for the current unease. Not everything comes down to politics, not by a long shot. But part of it is politics.

It has long been the American way to believe political problems can be solved or eased through political action. Were tax rates in certain areas of the economy too high from 1940 to 1980, and were they injurious to our economy and to individuals? Yes. So Americans pushed back, pamphleteered and backed leaders who promised to lower them. In time the taxes came down.

Name the political problem, we could answer it, or work toward answering it, with political solutions.

But faith in political action has been damaged the past few years, not by outside forces but by the two major political parties themselves.

If you are a normal person with the normal amount of political awareness, you might see it this way:

The Republicans talk about cutting spending, but they increase it—a lot. They stand for making government smaller, but they keep making it bigger. They say they’re concerned about our borders, but they’re not securing them. And they seem to think we’re slobs for worrying. Republicans used to be sober and tough about foreign policy, but now they’re sort of romantic and full of emotionalism. They talk about cutting taxes, and they have, but the cuts are provisional, temporary. Beyond that, there’s something creepy about increasing spending so much and not paying the price right away but instead rolling it over and on to our kids, and their kids.

So, the normal voter might think, maybe the Democrats. But Democrats are big spenders, Democrats are big government, Democrats will roll the cost onto our kids, and on foreign affairs they’re—what? Cynical? Confused? In a constant daily cringe about how their own base will portray them? All of the above.

Where does such a voter go, and what does such a voter do? It is odd to live in the age of options, when everyone’s exhausted by choice, and feel your options for securing political progress are so limited. One party has beliefs it doesn’t act on. The other doesn’t seem to have beliefs, only impulses.

What’s a voter to do? Maybe stay home, have the neighbors over for some barbecue, and then answer the phone when a pollster calls asking for a few minutes to answer some questions. When they get to the part about whether America is on the right track or the wrong track, boy, the voter knows the answer.

Congressional Republicans right now seem just like the liberal Republicans of the great Losing Era of Republican history, circa 1960-80. All the Republican congressmen in those days had good beliefs, and shared them at the Rotary luncheon back home. The government was getting too big and taxes were too high. Then they’d go back to Washington and vote for higher spending and higher taxes. But not as high as the Democrats, they’d point out. Their job was to stand athwart history and cry, “Please slow down just a little bit!”

Republicans on the ground back home got mad. Eventually they threw the old guys out and sent to Washington in 1980 a guy who meant it when he said he’d cut and contain.

*   *   *

A reporter told me a story a few weeks ago. He was at a meeting with an important Republican congressman. Talk turned to the upcoming 2006 elections. The congressman argued it will be better for the Republicans than people think; they’ll hold the House. He said they are better at getting the vote out. He made the case for this based on turnout figures in 2000 and 2004. They have more money. He made the case for this assertion too. And they have a message. The reporter who was there said later he noticed the oddest thing. Under “message” his notes were blank. He couldn’t really remember what the congressman said.

No wonder. How could they have a message if they’ve lost their meaning?

The oddest thing about Republicans and Democrats in power is that they always know the technical facts, always know about fund raising, always know what the national committee is saying about getting turnout. But so often they don’t know the message or even have a message. Which is funny, because they’re in the message business. They’re like shoemakers who make pretty shoeboxes but forget to make the shoes.

Party leaders say they’re aware they’re in trouble, aware of a sense of stasis in the country. They are going to solve the problem, they say, by passing legislation. They’re going to pass a budget. And they’re going to pass an immigration bill, too. People will like that.

But no they won’t. The American people are not going to say, “I am relieved and delighted our Congress passed a budget.” They will be relieved and delighted if Congress cuts spending. They would be relieved and delighted if Congress finally took responsibility for the nation’s borders. They won’t be impressed if you just pass bills and call it progress.

Party leaders are showing a belief in process as opposed to a belief in, say, belief. But belief drives politics. It certainly drives each party’s base.

One gets the impression party leaders, deep in their hearts, believe the base is . . . base. Unsophisticated. Primitive. Obsessed with its little issues. They’re trying to educate the base. But if history is a guide, the base is about to teach them a lesson instead.