WASHINGTON -- A mere six months before the 2008 presidential race enters the starting gate, neither party can boast about its popularity with the voters. The Republican brand is weakened by an unpopular war in Iraq, and recent polls tell us that congressional Democrats are losing the support of liberals and independents who are unhappy over the Democrats' political impotence in a narrowly divided Congress.
There is little, if anything, for Republicans to cheer about, as the mood of the country grows increasingly sour, largely over the war. According to Washington Post-ABC News poll reported Tuesday, 76 percent of Americans now believe "things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track." But the Democratic-run Congress isn't getting any medals from voters, either. The latest voter-approval scores for congressional Democrats has plunged 10 percentage points since April -- dropping from 54 percent to 44 percent in one month.
Democrats are counting on the nation's large independent-voter bloc to keep them in power next year. But that support has dwindled because of the Democrats' failure to move their agenda. Independents were evenly split over the Democrats last month, but now more than 54 percent of them disapproved of the Democrats' job performance, and just 37 percent of them approved. The shocker: Job-approval scores from liberal Democrats, the critical base of their party, fell by 18 points.
President Bush and the Republicans have nothing to write home about either, but at least the president's overall job-approval number, 35 percent, has held steady in recent months.
Democrats were losing voter confidence on another front. They came into power full of promises to get things done, but this month voters were split over what, if anything, they had accomplished so far. Forty-three percent now say the president is showing stronger leadership, versus 45 percent for the Democrats.
The Democrats' leadership deficit in Congress could have a spillover effect in the presidential elections, too.
Sen. Hillary Clinton has lengthened her lead over her chief rivals, Sen. Barack Obama and former senator John Edwards, who has fallen further behind in third place.
But Edwards appeared to be holding an edge over her in Iowa, the first caucus state in January, and some Democrats were not ready to proclaim Clinton the prohibitive favorite to win their party's nomination. "If you are not ahead in Iowa, you are not the front-runner. Somebody can always stumble," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the activist New Democrat Network. "Hillary has a lot of institutional advantages and a strong name ID, but the race is still wide open."
Iowa Democrats were especially angry with their party's leadership last month after it caved in to Bush's demands for a war-funding bill without a troop-pullout deadline.
"In talking to Democrats out here, the No. 1 issue is Iraq. They're unhappy there was no timetable in the bill to get our troops out. That's what I'm hearing on the ground," said Rob Tully, former Iowa Democratic state chairman. Yet some Democrats say they do not believe Clinton helped herself on that score by voting against a troop-funding bill that she had previously said she would support.
Democratic campaign strategist David Sirota thinks she has undercut her credibility on the war "because she has projected a policy calculation on it." "She has tried to thread an 'unthreadable' needle by first saying, 'I voted for the war, but now I'm critical of the war, and I'm not going to say it's a mistake, but I'm not going to vote for a blank check.' There's no ideology there. It does not seem like a policy that is governed by principle," Sirota told me.
And Clinton's transparent political calculations on the war, which Edwards attacked at the Democratic debate in New Hampshire, are not her only problem. There is also her growing liability as a deeply polarizing figure. That's one of the key points election analyst Charlie Cook raised about her at a briefing last Saturday at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce's Mackinac Policy Conference.
Between 46 percent and 48 percent of Americans "won't vote for her no matter what. If she were a stock, she'd have a very narrow trading range. There's no room for error," Cook told the assembled businessmen. That's not a good place for the Democratic front-runner to be, especially in an election cycle where the odds of the Republicans holding the White House are problematic at best. Historically, since World War II, it is rare for a party to win a third term.
But we're in a very volatile campaign cycle where all the old precedents could be broken. The top Republican presidential contenders are showing surprising strength against the Democratic front-runners when all the data says it should be otherwise.
At a time when the Democrats are having trouble demonstrating they can govern, and their front-runner remains deeply unpopular, no one should count the Republicans out.