If Sunday night's debate improved Hillary Clinton's chances of capturing the nomination, poll results released Tuesday suggest that she and other "centrists" are losing the very independents they need to win the general election. Congressional reluctance to take decisive action on Iraq is driving these critical voters away from the Democrats -- and they're taking the party's base with them.
Most observers, including me, believe that Sen. Clinton won Sunday night's debate (although Edwards was giving her a good run until Wolf Blitzer stopped giving him air time in the second half). And Clinton moved effectively to neutralize Iraq as a divisive issue for Democrats when she said "the differences among us are minor. The differences between us and the Republicans are major."
Unfortunately, the poll numbers don't offer much to support the play-it-safe strategy advocated by Sen. Clinton and other Congressional Democrats. In increasing numbers, the American public is beginning to agree with the assessments made by a number of liberal commentators: that the Democrats were given a majority in 2006 to take charge and end the Iraq war, and that their failure to do so leaves voters doubtful about their ability to lead.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll concluded the following, according to a report in the Post:
Disapproval of Bush's performance in office remains high, but the poll highlighted growing disapproval of the new Democratic majority in Congress. Just 39 percent said they approve of the job Congress is doing, down from 44 percent in April, when the new Congress was about 100 days into its term. More significantly, approval of congressional Democrats dropped 10 percentage points over that same period, from 54 percent to 44 percent. Much of that drop was fueled by lower approval ratings of the Democrats in Congress among strong opponents of the war, independents, and liberal Democrats. (emphasis mine)
Democrats hoping to persuade independent voters that they are ready to lead will also be disappointed by this figure: "In April, 59 percent of independents said Democrats were taking a stronger role, but that figure has dropped 15 points, to 44 percent." That's a sign that Democrats are already perceived as weak by this critical voting bloc.
Sure, the poll also confirms President Bush's ongoing unpopularity, but many Democrats don't seem to realize that he won't be a candidate next year.
These numbers suggest what many have suspected for a long time: Many Congressional Democrats in the Clinton/Emanuel mold confuse "independent" voters with "centrists," and mistakenly assume that independents fail to align with either party because their views lie somewhere between the two.
There's little evidence for this assertion. In fact, ideas like "Unity '08" that are based on the "unaligned centrist" model have failed to gain public interest. It's more plausible to think that many "independents" avoid party affiliations because they believe all politicians are cynical, fearful, self-interested, and pandering. The Democrats' timid behavior on the war is more likely to reinforce that perception than change it. The results among independent voters are likely to be devastating for the triangulators and their party.
The poll also shows how poorly this timorous approach is playing among core Democratic voters. "Among liberal Democrats," the Post reports, "approval of congressional Democrats dropped 18 points." That's a precipitous decline in a short time.
If Democrats don't take firmer action they may well find themselves going into the 2008 election with a double handicap. Swing voters will consider them cynical and fearful of taking bold action, while the party base is dispirited and open to third party alternatives (or staying at home). Without the clear and present danger of a Bush/Cheney ticket Dems can't count on the Fear Factor to save them again. If Congressional leaders and leading Presidential candidates don't change their strategy, 2008 could turn into a surprise blowout ... for the Republican Party.
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