Democrats beware. The only people in America more disliked right now than the president of the United States is the institution my party controls, the United States Congress.
Bush may be in the low 30s when it comes to his approval rating, but the Democratic Congress is behind him according to all the latest poll numbers, actually hovering in the mid-20s.
At a time when most Democrats are starting to convince themselves that the White House could be ours for the asking (at least if we could agree on who the right person is to do the asking), the low scores for Congress, coupled with the fact that our two frontrunning candidates happen to be part of that much-loathed institution, should give us cause for concern.
What's going on? Statistically speaking, it's not hard to understand. In the same way Bush is losing support even among those who identify themselves as Republicans and voted for him twice, the Congress is losing the confidence of self-identified Democrats, the people who elected them.
At this point in time, more people call themselves Democrats than Republicans, which means that there is even less support among Democrats for the House and Senate than there is among Republicans for the embattled President. Given how much trouble this administration is in right now, from a failed surge to a discredited attorney general, that says something. Something that worries me.
On a substantive level, it's not hard to figure out what Democrats are so upset about. The list of accomplishments that I got by e-mail today from the House and Senate leadership (they can read numbers, too) are notable not for what is included — like passing an increased minimum wage, or sending the president a stem cell bill for him to veto — but for what isn't on it. In a word, the problem is Iraq.
Like most Democrats, I strongly support an increase in the minimum wage, and the loosening of restrictions on stem cell research. But that isn't why the Democrats won control of the House and Senate. You can say it was George Allen's "macaca" that gave us the Senate, and the scandal with the boy pages surely didn't help House Republicans.
Corruption was a major issue, and the Senate can claim credit for passing a new ethics and lobbying bill, but the fact remains that anyone who can read, or smell, knows that the new budget is still laden with pork projects, even if more of them go to Democratic districts. But however you explain the outcome of individual races, there is no question what the number one priority of Democratic voters was when the new Congress was sworn in last January, and that was to do something to end the war in Iraq.
And when it comes to the war, no matter how you cut it, the fact remains that nothing has been accomplished, or rather, that we are no closer to being out of there than we were last January.
A late update for all of us "talkers" out here details the Senate's progress this week on what is called "Iraq Accountability," but it boils down to listing some hearings. In the meantime the number of troops is up, as is the number of fatalities, and with last week's deadly shrine bombing, the future for Iraq looks more hopeless than ever. Certainly, if this is what a troop surge "working" looks like, we're all in trouble.
Of course, the Congress can't also be the commander in chief. They can't literally force his hand. If you're in the blame business, he deserves far more of it. But it is fair to expect more from those who at least say they oppose the war than those who support it.
And that is what is so frustrating right now. Democrats, myself included, want more than hearings. We want some kind of action, some concrete steps, at the least the kind of timetables for action, or lack thereof, that were dropped from the last funding bill when Democrats bowed to administration demands. The idea that electing a Democratic Congress makes no difference to the effort to stop the war is not going down easily among Democrats.
What is holding Congress back from being more demanding is the fear of being seen as not supporting the troops. But how many times does it have to be pointed out that you don't support the troops by leaving them in harm's way, asking them to fight a losing war, insisting that they protect people who refuse to take the positive steps necessary to protect themselves?
Democrats have spent so long worrying about being perceived as "soft" on defense for taking the right position about the Vietnam War that they are too reluctant to use the power they have to stop another misbegotten effort. Vietnam is over, lost, and it wasn't the anti-war Democrats who were wrong about it.
It's not surprising, given all the numbers, that both the leading Democratic senator/would-be presidents, Clinton and Obama, voted against the spending bill. The danger, especially for Hillary, is that a Democratic constituency which can turn so easily on its own Congress could also turn on anyone associated with the timidity of establishment Democrats in taking on the president.
It may take a Democratic president to end the war, as party chairman Howard Dean suggested in his recent radio address, but it isn't easy to run based on your experience in an institution that your own constituents are losing patience with. There's a reason that governorships have traditionally been the best route to the presidency, and in times like this, the reason is clear.
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Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.