Public enemy number one: Democratic Party

Voters may not blame Democrats exactly, but they don't think they're anywhere near trustworthy

By Gabriel Winant
Published January 27, 2010 2:27PM (EST)

We could argue until the end of time about just what’s undermining public faith in the government. In fact, we probably will. But it’s increasingly clear that something is, and that it’s taking a steep toll on the popularity of Democrats everywhere.

A new poll from NBC/Wall Street Journal shows only 28 percent supporting the idea that the federal government is “working well” or “okay,” with the remaining 7 in 10 saying it’s “unhealthy,” “stagnant,” or needs major reform. The poll shows a public that’s nearly unanimous around the idea that there’s too much partisan infighting, too much special interest power. 61 percent say that neither party has been ready enough to compromise.

You can see how this snuck up on Democrats. They did, after all, spent all of last year watering down their every proposal seeking bipartisan support. Now, not only have they failed to get it, they’ve also been cast as sinners in the hands of an angry electorate. The poll shows 48 percent blaming congressional Republicans for the country’s problems, compared to 41 percent blaming congressional Democrats, and 27 percent blaming the president. That’s got to be cold comfort to a majority party looking at electoral disaster.

A spate of brand-new surveys shows that, regardless of exactly how in theory the public chooses to mete out blame for the failures of Washington, in practice this mass disillusion means punishment for Democrats. In Pennsylvania, Republican former Rep. Pat Toomey, frequently dismissed as too right-wing to win a general election, is trouncing both Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak, his two possible Democratic opponents, by margins of 14 and 21 points respectively. In Florida's gubernatorial race, former Rep. Bill McCollum, a Republican who’s lost races for just about every job in the state, is now beating the Democratic dream candidate, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, 51 percent to 41. And a pair of new generic congressional ballot tests show Republicans leading by anywhere from one to five points.

As their agenda seems to disintegrate and the public turns against their party, Democrats are turning on each other. In the House, Democrats blame a dysfunctional Senate and Majority Leader Harry Reid, who seems doomed in November. The White House too apparently thinks the Senate, and especially the moderate Democrats, frittered away the party’s political capital. And the Senate, ever protective of its prerogatives, continues to show little interest in being told what to do by either the House or the president.

It’s easy to understand why this is bewildering to Democrats. The public doesn’t even think they’re mainly to blame for the breakdown of the federal government. But it damn sure does think the federal government is broken down, and if it doesn’t blame them exactly, it certainly doesn’t trust them one bit to get us out of the ditch.

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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