A Backlash Against Bickering

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

CONCORD, N.H. -- Republicans have been scratching their heads in frustration. Why has a relatively good economy not been helping either President Bush's approval ratings or their party's electoral cause?

One answer is that economic growth is helping people at the top far more than anyone else. Another explanation can be discovered here and in other well-functioning states around the country: To the extent that voters are expressing gratitude this year, they are saying thanks to their governors. That does not stop them from yelling irately at Washington, D.C.

Consider the latest WMUR Granite State Poll by the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center. Asked the classic question about whether "things in New Hampshire" were going in "the right direction" or were "seriously off on the wrong track," an astonishing 79 percent saw their state moving the right way; only 14 percent saw it on the wrong track.

But when asked exactly the same question about how their country was doing, according to findings released yesterday, only 34 percent of New Hampshire residents said "the right direction"; 56 percent said "the wrong track."

That is good news for Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat who leads his Republican opponent, Jim Coburn, by a margin of 69 to 14 percent in the latest survey. It is bad news for Bush, whose approval rating in New Hampshire is 36 percent.

Lynch is among a cadre of moderate Democratic governors around the country who find themselves in commanding positions -- even outside Democratic-trending New England. Among them: Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas, Dave Freudenthal in Wyoming, Janet Napolitano in Arizona and Brad Henry in Oklahoma.

For his part, Lynch can hardly utter a sentence without including the word "bipartisan." He prides himself on having worked well with a Republican legislature and speaks with amazement at how Washington has become a place of "ongoing partisan bickering."

It may be no accident that Lynch's ratings are high while Bush's are low. Nick Clemons, the executive director of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, sees voters here consciously contrasting the peaceable political kingdom their state has become with what's happening several hundred miles to the south. "Washington," he says, "is the foil for New Hampshire."

The success of Democratic governors such as Lynch (and, for that matter, of that rescripted and now-moderate Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in California) also reflects a default by national Republicans on domestic issues.

The president's relentless focus on terrorism, combined with growing disenchantment with his Iraq policies, pushes voters to seek leadership from state and local politicians on issues such as education and health care.

Tom Rath, one of the state's most experienced Republican power brokers, loyally insists that Bush is still "personally" liked here. But Rath sees Iraq taking a huge toll on the president, partly because so many in New Hampshire's National Guard have served there and "the repetitious call-ups are disruptive to people's lives."

Rath recently announced his support for Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. His rationale is surprisingly similar to the explanations that Democrats give for the popularity of governors such as Lynch or Sebelius: Voters are in a mood for less "doctrinaire" politicians who can fix things.

Of the federal government, Rath said: "There's a feeling that this great big thing doesn't work very well." He said Republicans need to win back voters who feel they gave "the keys to the car" to their party only to have it driven "into the back of the garage." Rath sees Romney as the GOP's repairman.

If New Hampshire offers a model for a new wave of moderate Democrats, it is also a test case for how badly Bush -- and, now, the scandal surrounding former representative Mark Foley -- will wound incumbent Republican House members.

Politicians in both parties here see Rep. Jeb Bradley as having a substantial advantage over Carol Shea-Porter, an underfunded antiwar Democrat, and Rep. Charles Bass, to whom the words "nice guy" cling like a second title, leading his Democratic foe, Paul Hodes.

But Hodes, an indefatigable campaigner, has advertised heavily in an effort to demonstrate Bass's support for Bush's Iraq policies. The fact that Bass is stressing his "independence" and responded immediately with advertising of his own attacking Hodes on Iraq suggests that Republicans know how vulnerable the incumbent could become if Hodes succeeds in yoking Bass to Bush. In principle, Bradley could face the same problem.

The irony is that Bush has fostered a backlash against himself, against ideology and against partisanship that, as a former governor, he should have seen coming.


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