With Republican approval ratings continuing their slide from weak to dismal, Democrats should be gearing up to challenge the Republican Party's decade-long congressional dominance. To do so would require active propagation of new ideas. Instead, Democrats are relying on the unpopularity of Republicans to drive voters into their waiting arms. "CIA LEAK SCANDAL: The White House's Campaign for War: The cover-up is just as bad as the crime," blares the Democratic National Committee (DNC) website, www.democrats.org. "Republicans Again Fail America on Energy Independence," the website further proclaims. "Republican Culture of CORRUPTION," adds the website.
The perennial Democratic Party slogan is "We're Not Republicans -- Vote For Us!" It won't be enough. Democratic leaders seem to forget they are almost as unpopular as Republicans. A May 8, 2006, The New York Times/CBS News poll showed President Bush with a 31 percent approval rating, but it also showed Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) garnering a 34 percent favorability rating (vs. 35 percent unfavorable), Senator John Kerry (D-MA) with a 26 percent approval rating (vs. 38 percent unfavorable), and former Vice President Al Gore with a 28 percent approval rating (vs. 39 percent unfavorable). More tellingly, while only 23 percent of Americans approved of how Congress was doing its job, Americans still approved of how their congressional representative was handling his/her job by a margin of 53 percent to 31 percent.
While Democrats are championing statistics showing that Americans prefer Democrats to Republicans in a generic sense, generic questions about the Democratic or Republican parties say little about how people actually vote. Michael Barone of U.S. News and World Report rightly points out, "In the five House elections from 1996 to 2004, there has been very little variation in the popular vote percentages for both parties. The Republican percentage of the popular vote for the House has fluctuated between 49 and 51 percent, the Democratic percentage between 46 and 48.5 percent. This has been true despite great differences in the job ratings of the parties' leading figures." Barone attributes this electoral stasis to cultural differences between left and right, observing that war and economics have had little impact on the voting breakdown.
If Barone is right, Democrats should think twice before embracing values that have led them from majority to minority status. Yet, in their triumphal celebration at the popular disenchantment with President Bush, Democrats have begun to think that they can win simply by ripping Republicans and pushing cultural issues that are proven losers. "Yesterday in a small room with restricted access to the general public, under a shameful cloak of secrecy, the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee rammed through a proposed Constitutional amendment that would prohibit states to recognize same-sex marriages," read a May 19 press release from the DNC. Howard Dean remarked, "The politics of fear and division have no place in America. Republicans must stop scapegoating LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender] families for political gain, and join Democrats in fighting for full equality for all Americans, including our friends and family in the LGBT community."
This issue will win the Democrats no friends and many enemies in the general population. Most of the country isn't like California and Massachusetts. Most Americans don't see preservation of heterosexual marriage as a denial of fundamental rights to homosexuals; most Americans are tolerant of homosexuals, but wish to reserve the hallmark of societal approval for traditionally moral sexual behavior. Labeling those who wish to uphold the institution of marriage fear-mongers and extremists isn't likely to bridge the culture-gap Barone describes.
Then there's the broader moral issue implicated in foreign policy and domestic security. Most Americans see preservation of their safety as a moral issue, and Democrats continue to prove themselves unserious in their handling of terrorism. Al Gore parades around the United States telling students that global warming is the direst threat humanity faces, and the scion of the Democratic Party Bill Clinton backs him up, stating, "Climate change is more remote than terror, but a more profound threat to the future of the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren I hope all of you have." This is the height of absurdity, and Americans will recognize it as such.
Will Democrats make gains in the 2006 elections? It is quite likely they will. But their unwillingness to reconsider the values they push may turn what could have been a stunning victory of great proportions into a relatively small turnover on Election Day.