The dreariest political spring

Posted: May 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Conservatives were near ecstatic last November when President Bush won handily and the Republicans strengthened their hold in Congress. Hopes were high that little could stop the implementation of a true conservative agenda, one that featured supply-side economic reform, investor-owned Social Security reform, serious budget restraint, large-scale energy deregulation, legal-abuse-curbing tort reform, and the confirmation of pro-business, pro-life judicial nominees.

 But the hoped-for domestic-reform agenda has gone nowhere. Five months into Bush's new term, the president and the American people are witnessing a cycle of self-flagellation in pursuit of endless process debate inside the U.S. Senate.

 The potential for high-minded policy reforms to fix entitlements and spur growth and prosperity has degenerated into a hopeless morass of name-calling, scandal-mongering, political-bludgeoning and relationship-breaking over the seemingly simple issue of giving the president's judicial nominees an up-or-down vote. Think of it as a new reality show called "Nomination." Problem is, America doesn't want to watch.

 According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 51 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress, while only 33 percent approve. Democrats receive a 47 percent approval rating while Republicans get only 40 percent. These are the worst polling data for the GOP since the eve of the Gingrich revolution of 1994.

 It is not, however, a perfect poll. The party-labeling sample includes 41 percent Democrats and only 36 percent Republicans. After recent elections, any good pollster would prefer something closer to an even split. Still, 57 percent of Americans believe the president has different priorities than the nation, 55 percent think Republicans are out of line, and 48 percent say the Democrats have the wrong agenda.

 The single biggest problem facing Americans today seems to be rising gasoline prices, with jobs and the economy following suit. Yet seldom does Bush even talk about energy. Another key issue of discontent is immigration. The president seems to want more of it, while the public clearly wants less. The threat of terrorism looms large here, as does the (unproven) threat of job losses to illegal immigrants. My hunch is mainstream America would like to see at least a temporary cap on immigrants, along with much stronger border controls.

 Interestingly, the Journal/NBC poll shows that Social Security is getting too little emphasis in Washington. But pollster Scott Rasmussen points out a real land mine for the Bush reform proposals of Social Security IRAs and the progressive indexing of benefits. Retirees have always opposed reform, and younger people seem to favor it. But it's the age group of 50 to 64 years that is completely opposed to what they're hearing. To them, Washington is planning a higher wage cap for Social Security taxes, lower benefits and no new IRAs. This group is the most likely segment of the voting population for the midterm elections -- not a good sign for GOP strategists.
Meanwhile, a lackluster stock market, which has not nearly recovered from the plunge of 2000-2002, appears to have driven the investor/owner class into real estate. Prices in that sector are hot, and tax benefits are enormous. One wonders if support for Social Security reform would rise astronomically if the president made home purchases part of an individual lock-box strategy.

 Which leads us to a difficult question: Are the White House and its congressional allies selling policy reforms that voters simply are not buying? The seemingly more popular issue of tax reform is not even on the table. But will tax-reform commissioners Connie Mack and John Breaux ever get their proposals to see the light of day in the current obstructionist congressional climate?

 Speaking of obstructionism, the Democrats should take no comfort in the Journal/NBC poll. Even with the poor political weighting of the sample, by 38 to 30 percent the public opposes Democratic efforts to prevent the president's judicial nominations from coming up for a vote.

 All senators have dirt on their hands these days. The Senate, if you can believe it, just delivered a budget-busting, pork-laden $295 billion highway bill, featuring several thousand special-interest earmarks and a phony tax-transfer from general revenues to the trust fund. Where was the allegedly conservative Republican-controlled Senate? This bill was voted through 89 to 11 , opening the door for President Bush's very first veto.

 Oh, and let's not forget a potential trade and currency war with China and perhaps Europe as well. But at least this is backed by a bipartisan coalition anchored by Sen. Smoot Schumer and Sen. Hawley Graham.

 There's plenty of work to be done in Washington, but it's not getting done. Meanwhile, the capital city seems to be disconnecting from the country. Cynics say gridlock means less government -- a healthy omen for the economy. Would that were true. This is surely the dreariest political spring I can remember.