Recent polls show that voter confidence in government is at a low point, and that spells election danger for congressional incumbents. It’s also not good for the rest of us.
A March 29-April 1 CBS News poll showed that 56 percent of adults believe congressional debates on matters of national importance are less civil than they were 10 years ago. A March 19-21 CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 51 percent of those polled believe Republicans are more unethical than Democrats in Congress (but only by 2 percent). But with a 3 percent margin of error, it’s safe to conclude that half of all Americans consider both Democrats and Republicans to be equally unethical. A May 2 Rasmussen poll gives the edge to Republicans in the generic ballot by seven points; that is, 44 percent of likely U.S. voters would vote Republican, compared to 37 percent for Democrats. As for independent voters, 43 percent prefer Republican candidates compared to 27 percent who like Democrats.
It’s clear that voters can change their minds as frequently as Barack Obama can propose new government takeovers, but the disturbing trend in all political polling is that most Americans are disgusted with the state of government and quality of elected officials who make decisions for us in Washington, D.C. Sadly, voters are rightly skeptical of their motives, ethics and integrity. To date, 17 Democrats and 20 Republicans have called it quits in the House, a disturbing trend likely to continue, but it’s symptomatic of the sour atmosphere on Capitol Hill and throughout the nation.
Politics has always been a contact sport, and public policy issues usually produce a divided electorate and provoke sharp rhetoric. Ben Franklin, writing in 1771, found “libeling and personal abuse” disgraceful to our country. Thomas Paine accused George Washington, thought by most to be a paragon of virtue, of “treachery” and “pusillanimity.” Harper’s magazine labeled Abraham Lincoln a “Filthy story teller, despot, liar, thief, braggart and buffoon,” among other negative monikers.
Despite the hard rhetoric of the past, the time-honored practices of respectable discourse, compromise and accommodation with opponents over tough issues, and the ultimate resolution of political and philosophical differences for the public good, have given way to the abuses of power that now dominate the halls of government. And that’s upsetting to the nation. Our country is in serious debt, government is now more king-sized than ever, and elected officials seem tone deaf to public sentiment. Under the circumstances, the mantra, “But we won the election” chanted by congressional Democrats and the president misses the mark.
It’s tempting to wonder why national politics has become so ugly that increasing numbers of voters are disgusted with all national leaders, abandoning the trust they once had in what President Obama promised in his inaugural address as a “new era of responsibility.” In fact, Mr. Obama’s tendency to believe the myths of omnipotence that surrounded his historic election shows that he has lost the moral equanimity all presidents should possess — confidence without arrogance. Schooled in Chicago-style politics, Obama was arguably the least prepared the presidency has seen — never a governor, usually a back-bench state official, a short-term U.S. Senator, rarely willing to boldly lead on anything significant, but always with an eye to the presidency. His style and policies may be the reason the public’s opinion of government has worsened since the dawn of his presidency.
In retrospect, Mr. Obama entered the presidency with a vast agenda, but he mistakenly ceded the one-sided health care debate to the liberal leaders of Congress and had to break arms to eke out passage in the face of a 59 percent public disapproval for the program. That 59 percent will remember the issue in November. He naively thought his aura of invincibility might rub off on the Iranians, the Russians and the Chinese; that trio has failed, so far, to bow down to U.S. priorities — and likely won’t. And the economy, naturally cyclical, hasn’t come close to the president’s predictions for recovery.
So we’re left now with a deeply divided electorate, uncertain about the future, with too many Americans still unemployed. And voters seem poised to throw incumbents out in large numbers, and give voice to their frustrations. Unfortunately, it signals our collective disdain for political leaders in a political system that should be inspiring confidence in our future as a nation — and as a people.
There have always been shifts in Americans’ political moods, but the downward pressure now being felt by taxpayers could lead to a public awakening in November that demands a fundamental change in national direction. And it’s why public participation in 2010 is so vital to a robust democracy. This promises to be the election year in which fiscal restraint, a halt in the expansion of government and its control over American lives, protection of national borders and proper attention to private-sector, job-creating policies rule the day.
The public also seems hungry for statesmen, not ideologues on the far left or far right, but simply honorable, intelligent people who are called to public life to serve others and have the maturity to make wise decisions for the majority of Americans, and in the process, humbly restore our confidence in their leadership of our great nation. Just because politicians win elections doesn’t mean they can ignore the people they serve.
November’s election will chart the nation’s course.
George Nethercutt represented the 5th District of Washington as a Republican in Congress between 1995-2005. His column appears in The Inlander once a month.