With fears of a recession growing, the widespread media portrayal of President Bush as having sided with the wealthy in his budget negotiations with Congress led election analysts yesterday to downgrade Republican prospects in next month's midterm elections.
"It's unfortunate tactically in terms of how this budget story has been played in the media that you have George Bush clinging to a capital gains tax cut and seeming to favor the rich," said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster. "That's not the hook you want on the story."
"I'm afraid we're in a free fall," said a top GOP campaign strategist who asked not to be identified. "With the president waffling on the tax issue, our base is eroding and the Democrats' base, especially among senior citizens, has a real chance to firm up."
For most of the year, pollsters have been warning of voter frustration at politics as usual, but until now most had concluded that the discontent had a bipartisan cast. But two polls released this week before the confusion over Bush's position on taxes suggest that Republicans may be more at risk.
According to a survey taken by the Wirthlin Group for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), by 69 to 25 percent voters think the country is heading in the wrong direction. Another survey for the Los Angeles Times showed that Bush's approval rating is down to 55 percent, the lowest level of his presidency and 21 points below where it had been in mid-August.
The Wirthlin Group's "right direction/wrong track" numbers are the lowest since the last months of Jimmy Carter's presidency, when the Iran hostage crisis and runaway inflation and interest rates darkened the public mood and helped elect Ronald Reagan.
"When the numbers get to these levels, of course you're concerned," said Marc Nuttle, political director of the NRCC. "It's not the sort of environment where you want to be identified with the administration in power."
Many analysts said these risks for Republicans could be compounded by news reports of a GOP president seeming to waffle on the issue of higher taxes for the rich.
"The headlines around the country today are devastating for Bush -- I'm really stunned by the way the president has handled this," agreed Thomas E. Mann, director of government studies at Brookings Institution. "It seems to me that it's the worst misjudgment of his presidency, and he's created a brand new opening for the Democrats."
Mann, a specialist on Congress and congressional elections, added:
"Until this week, I thought Democrats would be afraid that if there was no budget deal before the election, they'd pay a price, because voters would say, 'A pox on everybody's house,' and there are more Democratic incumbents than Republican. Now, I think they can play their 'fairness card' and talk about how they couldn't get a deal because they are trying to get the president to tax the rich and spare the elderly."
The headlines Mann referred to summarized news reports that Bush had sent out conflicting signals about whether he would support an upper-income bracket tax rate increase as part of a budget deal that would also lower capital gains taxes. They included the lead front page headline in Wednesday's USA Today that read, "Bush: Yes, then no on taxing rich." In the Evening Sun of Baltimore, it was, "Bush Flips, then Flops on Tax Rates for Rich." In The Washington Post it was, "Bush Wavers on Taxing Rich as Senators Protest." In Hot Springs, Ark., the headline said he "Recants," in Hudson County, N.J., he "Blinks," in Sioux Falls, S.D., he "Backs Off."
Mann said that before this week he had been guessing that Republicans would lose only five seats in the House next month and perhaps gain a seat or two in the Senate, an excellent projected midterm showing for the party of an incumbent administration. Now, Mann predicted, unless Bush can regain control of the chaotic budget process, "Republicans could lose as many as 15 to 20 House seats." That would mark their worst congressional showing since since 1982 when, in the midst of a recession, the GOP lost 26 seats in the House.
Democrats delighted in the opening provided by Bush's performance on the tax issue. "George Bush has two Achilles' heels -- 'rich' and 'wimp' -- and he managed to expose both of them on the same day," Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman said.