Friday, August 5, 2011

Meet the New Bums, Same As the Old Bums

Judging from our latest CBS News-New York Times Poll, it looks like 2012 is shaping up to be the fourth consecutive anti-incumbent national election - with voters in their most foul mood yet.

The question is, which bums will they decide to toss out this time?  And will it make any difference, or will the electorate be even angrier in 2014?

2006 was an historically bad year for incumbents: Democrats seized control of both houses of Congress from the Republicans, who for the first time in their history failed to defeat any sitting Democrats.  Two years later, with President Bush's Republican Party branded "toxic," the Democrats completed their sweep, expanding their House and Senate majorities and electing Barack Obama president.

But voters quickly grew disenchanted with Mr. Obama and disappointed at the Democrats' failure to reinvigorate the economy.  The anti-incumbency tide washed back on the Democrats in 2010, as they lost the House to the GOP and only narrowly clung to control of the Senate.  Emboldened Republicans set their sights on reclaiming both the Senate and the White House in 2012.

Ah, but the pendulum of voter disenchantment swings heavily in all directions, and now it is taking steady aim at the head of Speaker John Boehner.

The new survey shows voter disapproval of Congress at an all-time high, a record 82%.  Only 14% approve of the Congressional performance.  Boehner bears the brunt of voter anger:  57% disapprove of him while a meager 30% think he's doing a good job.  A record 84% are dissatisfied or angry with Washington.  Even during the Reagan Revolution of 1980 and the Contract With America uprising of 1994, we didn't see voters seething like this.

That gives each party an opportunity for gain next year, but it also leaves both vulnerable to crushing defeat.  The Democrats could wrest the House, and the Speakership, back from Boehner.  But they could also lose their slim Senate majority to the Republicans, in which case 2012 would give us the Capitol Hill version of a house swap.  That would leave things essentially unchanged, with each party controlling one house of Congress, which recent events have shown is hardly a scenario for constructive compromise.

President Obama is sailing surprisingly sanguinely above the chaos.  Forty-eight percent approve of his performance, 47% don't.  Forty-seven percent trust him more to handle the economy, while 33% have more faith in the Republicans.  Right now Mr. Obama probably remains a narrow favorite for re-election, especially since his opponent seems likely to be either Mitt Romney or Michele Bachmann (or possibly Texas Governor Rick Perry), any of whom will be a deeply flawed national candidate.

If the economy remains in a rut, and voter antipathy intensifies, one of those Republicans could oust Mr. Obama.  The GOP could seize the Senate and maybe even hold on to the House.  But right now these numbers point to serious trouble for Speaker Boehner and the Republicans, and a narrow escape for the president, especially if the economy finally finds its footing.

No matter what happens next year - and that election is still a l-o-n-g way off - it's hard to imagine the outcome effecting profound change in the way Washington works.  Which means whichever party emerges on top will be feeling the voters' wrath again by the middle of 2013, as this cycle's challengers become the next one's incumbents, and the people get ready to toss the newly elected bums onto the growing pile of old ones.