At the risk of giddy over-optimism, I have the hunch that the American voting public is beginning to demand legislating that actually deals with the nation's problems. There is creeping -- still ambiguous -- evidence of this, starting with the national polling data.
I argued last December that President Barack Obama's support for the extension of the Bush tax cuts would not end up helping him once the 2011 legislating season started picking up steam, because by principle the president was toward the left side of the political spectrum -- and the public was toward the right -- particularly on the matter of public debt and deficit.
Consider the recent polling. Using the reliable RealClearPolitics national average of polling, the president's job approval was about 45 percent positive and 49 percent negative at election time in November, down about 4 percent. He inched up over the holidays to about even, and then in early January (before Congress was getting back into the controversial matters), he went upward to about 49 percent positive and 46 percent negative, plus 3.
In the aftermath of the Tucson, Ariz., shooting and the president's exceptionally well-received speech, his job approval level reached a high of 51-43 percent in late January, an 8-point advantage. The latest numbers are back down to 48.8 percent positive to 45.3 percent negative, a 3.5 percent positive for the president but a negative 5-point swing in the first month of substantive policy argument domestically and conspicuous turmoil abroad.
Then last week came the president's proposed 2012 budget, which was poorly received, even by The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Associated Press, MSNBC and the rest of the liberal media, all of them accusing the president of failing to lead on the great issue of debt and deficit. His advisers then rushed him out for a news conference repair job, where the come-away presidential quote was that the Washington press corps was "impatient" with him on his handling of the deficit.
But the building evidence is that the public is also impatient. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's approval level is shooting up in the polls as he loudly and decisively cuts the state budget (including state pensions) to deal with his state's emergency.
The public still has clearly in mind the riots in Athens, London and Paris and the deficit crisis in Greece, Ireland, Spain, Britain, France, Portugal and more of the European Union. For the first time, it is clear to all the world that modern, successful, stable Western democracies can actually run out of money and have their borrowing requests virtually rejected by the international bond market.
The fiscal reality of crisis in Europe is driving the political reality of impatience in American politics.
And now we have the astounding spectacle of Wisconsin, where the Democratic state senators have left the state rather than attend the vote for modest but necessary cuts in public employee benefits proposed by the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, who was elected to do precisely what he is proposing (including restricting public employee unions' collective bargaining powers).
Compounding the spectacle is the Cairo-like demonstrating by tens of thousands of union members -- particularly teachers who have called in "sick," thus forcing the closing of many Wisconsin public schools. (Of course, unlike Cairo, Wisconsin is part of the American democracy, which has just had a fair and honest biennial election -- and it has done so more than 100 consecutive times -- in which the people were able to speak and elect their chosen leaders.)
Though we do not have reliable polling on the Wisconsin controversy yet, it was a telltale sign over the weekend when the head of the teachers union urged teachers to go back to work. Public unions are in a justifiably low standing with the public.
And after three years of private-sector firings -- plus 9 percent unemployment, salary cuts, home mortgage crises and 401(k) shrinkage -- the 91 percent of the American work force that works in that private sector (53 percent for small businesses with even lower benefits) is entitled to feel little sympathy for Wisconsin schoolteachers, who receive an average of $89,000 in salary and benefits and contribute $0 to their pension plans and only 5 percent to their medical insurance. (The average private-sector employee contributes 29 percent.)
The president's strong support for the public workers union lines up -- at least for the time being -- a both state and federal policy debate that may well yield needed deficit reduction legislation and dangerous political waters for the Democratic Party. The Democrats seem to be prepared to defend the idea of not dealing with the deficit crisis. Have the Democratic strategists (including those in the White House) really thought through the electoral implications of that decision?
Of course, huge, good news for America on an unrelated topic may break out somewhere (though probably not in the Middle East, Mexico, Europe or Asia) -- and I hope it does.
But if "deficits and debt" continues to be the defining issue of American politics for the next 18 months -- and if the Democrats from the White House to the statehouses stay in their current head-in-the-sand posture -- Democrats may be approaching a nasty electoral meltdown of their party in November 2012.