For Democratic Congress, Voters' Singular Disapproval Has Many Seeds

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007

To Edwin Robinson, a Milwaukee casino pit boss and a lifelong Democrat, the new Democratic Congress that he cheered seven months ago is now a source of shame, as its leaders try to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

"Let's not just pull out," Robinson, 50, said. "That feels like being beat again."

Terry Brickman, 43, a Republican-voting independent from suburban Detroit, was no less enthusiastic about the Democrats' victory in November, and is no less disappointed today. By now, he figured, the new Congress would have forced President Bush to change course.

"Congress had the ability with their momentum coming in to really do some things, gain some respect or positive feelings from the American people, and that's gone already," said Brickman, a medical-device sales representative. "They failed."

Brickman and Robinson, two respondents to the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, help explain why Congress moves toward its August recess this week with approval ratings at 37 percent, rivaling the president's low ratings -- and why it has become so difficult for the Democratic leadership to do anything about it. Polling data and follow-up interviews reveal that voters disapprove of the new Democratic majority, but the reasons range wildly.

Iraq is the dominant theme, but no clear consensus emerges about what Congress should do. About half of Americans in the Post-ABC poll said that Democrats have done too little to push Bush on his war policy. Others said in interviews that Congress has neglected domestic issues while focusing on Iraq.

In short, the divisions in the nation at large are well reflected in the paralysis on Capitol Hill.

"My feeling is they're not really standing up for the other side of the story. They're caving and not fighting hard enough for what American people really want," said Jessica Lane, 28, a Democrat and registered nurse in Bremerton, Wash. "Maybe my hopes were just a little too high."

Those sentiments have buoyed Republicans as they attack what they call a Democratic "Post Office Congress" -- unable to accomplish much more than renaming federal buildings.

"The approval rating of this Congress is now down to what we believe is the lowest recorded point in polling history, having apparently squandered whatever political capital they may have achieved with the American people last November the 7th in a record short period of time," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.

But Republicans have not turned those attacks into significant support. Although 46 percent of Americans say they approve of the job Democrats in Congress are doing, 34 percent say they approve of the congressional Republicans' performance.

"The Republicans don't come out of this a winner," warned Nancy Lukacs, 68, a swing voter in the Dallas suburbs. "The Democrats may come out not the winner we wanted, but they are not the losers that turn us back to the Republicans."

One GOP tactic is to slap a "do-nothing" label on Democrats, who set high expectations for themselves. Of their "6 for '06" agenda of domestic priorities, Democrats have passed half -- an increase in the minimum wage, enactment of new homeland security recommendations and federal funding for stem cell research, which Bush vetoed.

Before the end of the week, Democrats are likely to make good on their promise to tighten rules on congressional ethics and lobbying. The House and Senate plan to pass a significant expansion of the 10-year-old federal health program to insure children of the working poor.

"From security at home, plus the economic pieces of health care, higher education and the minimum wage, we are hitting key domestic economic issues," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.).

But few poll respondents interviewed have noticed.

"I don't think they know what they're doing," said George Craig, 62, a lawyer and Republican from suburban Pittsburgh.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), an architect of the Democratic victories who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, acknowledged the problem. The midterm elections of 2006 showed how upset voters were, but for now sentiments are in flux, he said. The real change in the electorate will come next year, as a presidential campaign accentuates the issues and solidifies voters' stands.

For now, he said, Democrats worried over Congress's approval rating must take heart that their party still holds double-digit leads over Republicans in the polls.

"Clearly, people are frustrated with the slow pace of change," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In large part, the problem is Iraq, which has scrambled the political equation, he acknowledged.

Retiree Dale Vaughn, 73, of Minnestra, Minn., is not happy about the way Democrats are spending his tax money, but what really gets the Republican riled may be surprising.

"The first thing I would have liked them to do is impeach him," he said of the president. "They're not going to get anywhere trying to hold back funds or change his opinion with these silly all-night sessions. He's ignorant. He's not going to change."

Melanie Harrison, 38, a stay-at-home mother in Denton, N.C., has stuck with her Republican congressman, Howard Coble, but she advocates a stand against Bush's Iraq policy that even war skeptic Coble would never stomach.

"I don't know if anyone could get him to change his policy," Harrison said, "but Congress has control of the funds, and if they didn't have the money they would have to change course."

Lukacs, who voted Democrat in the last election, sees things differently.

"I would like to see them do other things, like health care, but I think they're all tied up in their underwear," she said. "For whatever reason, the Iraq thing has become our national focus, but there are a lot of needs in this country that they're not getting to."

Faced with such contradictory impulses, Democratic leaders can take solace in such voters as Tad Pfister, 72, a former Republican county chairman in Nogales, Ariz., who supported Democrat Gabrielle Giffords in her successful bid last year to replace retiring Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe. Pfister acknowledged his disappointment with the Democratic majority, especially over Iraq, which turned him against his former party in the first place. But he promised patience, and he's not going back to the GOP.

"There's no way they can do anything to get out of Iraq. They're trying hard, but they can't succeed," he said. "We're just going to have to wait until next election and see a Democrat in the White House."

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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