Shocking the Two Party System

In recent years, progressive third party efforts have hardly left a dent in the American political system. Recent polling data however suggest that the American electorate is restless and anxiously waiting for a change. The only thing which is missing is the spark and organizational vehicle. If progressives are smart, they might be able to launch a significant challenge to congressional incumbents in the 2006 election. An idealistic pipe dream? Not necessarily. Candidates who hammer the two parties on Iraq while linking this issue to domestic concerns such as disaster relief, health care, social security and energy policy could have the winning formula for 2006. Polling data suggests that the Republicans are dangerously out of step with the issues Americans hold most dear, while the Democrats refuse to capitalize on Bush’s political mistakes. This opens the door for independent candidates to pick up momentum.

The Polling Data: Initially, Republicans Dominate the Agenda

For the past four years, Bush and the Republicans have proven very adept at shaping the political debate to their advantage. This has usually meant emphasizing terrorism and instilling fear in the U.S. public. According to Harris polling, in August 2000 the greatest concerns for Americans were healthcare, education and social security, while terrorism represented less than .5% of respondents. But 9/11 changed the focus of the electorate. In December 2001, while such social concerns as education still figured prominently, a full 22% of Americans thought terrorism was the most important issue facing the country.

The Hard Polling Data on Iraq

On the other hand, in August 2005 only 7% of Americans rated terrorism as their most pressing concern, down 15 percentage points from late 2001. Not surprisingly, the administration has not been using the term “war on terror” nearly as much. What’s more, the president wasn’t getting a bounce from the situation in Iraq. Let’s look at the polling data and how it might affect key electoral races. According to the latest CNN poll, 67% of the American public disapproves of President Bush’s Iraq strategy. A whopping 40% of Republicans view the Iraq war as a bust, raising the specter of dissension within the party ranks. The Republicans could not derive any solace from a Harris poll demonstrating that Iraq was growing in political importance, with 41% of Americans viewing the war as their most important issue.

Other surveys seem to spell political trouble for the president. A CBS poll taken in September reveals that 29% of Americans would be in favor of removing all the troops now, and another 26% would support a decrease in troop levels. What is more, Americans aren’t buying Bush’s claim that U.S. security would be endangered by a withdrawal. A full 54% see no change in the terror threat in the even of a withdrawal, and 11% think the terror threat would be reduced. The poll also reveals that the American public thinks Bush is trying to deceive them on the war: 57 percent say the president makes the Iraqi situation sound better than it really is. When they are asked to look back in hindsight, 49% of Americans say the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq, while two thirds think the war has not been worth its cost.

Iraq and Republicans in the 2006 mid-term elections

One can only surmise that the war will deteriorate, and that any pro-war candidate will have a difficult sell come the following November. In the Senate, 45 seats are up for grabs in the 2006 election. How will Iraq play out here? In 2002, 23 Senators voted against going to war in Iraq, 77 in favor. Twelve of the original 2002 pro-war Republicans are up for re-election. They include: Orrin Hatch of Utah, Conrad Burns of Montana, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, George Allen of Virginia, Jon Kyl of Arizona, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Trent Lott of Mississippi, Kay Hutchison of Texas, John Ensign of Nevada and Craig Thomas of Wyoming.

In the House, a number of representatives are compromised on their 2002 congressional vote on use of force in Iraq.

There are still a full 50% of House members, 217 by my count, out of a total of 435 total members, who are currently in Congress and who voted yes to Bush’s 2002 bill. Of those 217, 164 are Republicans. This means that about 70% of all current House Republicans are tainted by their initial association with the war.

Electoral Wildcard: Natural Disaster

Another issue which stands to have a volatile impact on the upcoming elections is natural disasters. Consider the following: even before Hurricane Katrina struck, a poll conducted by the Washington, DC-based Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates found that 45% of Americans thought natural disasters should be a high priority for Washington politicians, while 41% said medium priority. The January 2005 poll, which was commissioned by America’s Wetland Foundation, found that Americans were particularly worried about hurricanes. A full 80% of respondents felt that hurricanes specifically might cause a severe loss of life. When asked how they would limit the damage from hurricanes, 38% said that restoring the natural coastal environment would be an important strategy, while 46% said it was a somewhat important strategy.

Meanwhile, 52% agreed that restoring Louisiana’s wetlands was very important, while 38% said it was somewhat important. Meanwhile Harris polling indicates that even as Americans were turning away from terrorism as their foremost concern, environmental issues were looming in importance: 3% of Americans listed environment as their foremost concern, up from 1% in late 2001.

According to a Wall Street Journal poll, just prior to Hurricane Katrina Bush’s disapproval rating stood at 55%, with 40% approving of the president and 5% unsure. In the aftermath however, his numbers, according to CBS, slipped yet further: only 38% approved of his overall job performance. Meanwhile, many Americans saw Katrina as a defining moment. A CBS poll taken in the wake of the disaster showed that 5% of the public saw the disaster as the most important problem facing the country. A CBS poll taken in early September showed that 54% of Americans approved of Bush’s handling of the disaster, while only 12% disapproved. On the other hand, a full one third said they still couldn’t make up their minds. While it’s unclear what the long term political impact of Hurricane Katrina may be, Americans lost confidence in their political leadership. According to CBS polling data taken after Hurricane Katrina, 34% said they didn’t have much confidence in government to respond to natural disasters, and a full 15% said they had no confidence at all. Only 19% said they had a great deal of confidence in the authorities, a truly staggering statistic.

While Bush has now launched the reconstruction effort in the Gulf, it may prove too late to reverse public perceptions. For the past five years, the Republicans have cut social programs, not provided relief to the neediest. The opportunistic way that Bush has handled the relief efforts, for example by awarding contracts to Halliburton, will only add to this perception in the mind of the American electorate. While there’s still a year to go before the election, experts report that we are in a period of greater hurricane activity in the Atlantic. What is more, public health officials warn of an outbreak of Asian bird flu, which could wreak political and economic havoc on George Bush’s presidency. Currently the U.S. only has 2 million vaccine doses to treat a public health disaster. Experts warn however that in the event of an outbreak the number of victims could reach even higher than this number.

Electoral Wildcard: Gas Prices

For the Republicans, there is yet further bad news on the horizon however. As a result of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, approximately 12 per cent of US crude oil production capacity and roughly 10 per cent of total US refining capacity was shut down.

Oil prices hit a new record of $70.18 a barrel. At this time last year, according to Harris polling, only 1% of the U.S. public ranked oil prices as its foremost concern. Public attitudes have shifted dramatically however. In August, gas prices ranked fourth in importance after the war, the economy, and health care. But since then, gas has increased in significance and ranks as the number two issue amongst the electorate after the war in Iraq. What’s more, while only 1% of Americans rated energy concerns as their most pressing issue at this time last year, that figure now stands at 4%.

According to a CBS poll, nine out of ten Americans say higher gas prices have affected them, and 62% say prices have affected them a lot. Majorities of Americans in all demographic groups, including the most affluent, report that they have been impacted. However, those earning less than $30,000 a year and those with only a high school education or less have been most affected. Concern with rising gas prices is shared across political party lines. The public is pessimistic about the future, with more than eight in 10 Americans expecting gas prices to go up further. Meanwhile, Americans have reported that they have had to cut down on food, groceries, and entertainment such as movies.

Public anger is mainly directed at the oil companies, with two in five Americans saying that they share most of the blame.

On the other hand, 5% blame Bush for higher oil prices, and 63% say the president can do more about the problem. Anger is also directed at other branches of government, with 4% saying Congress is responsible. Rising gas prices have also resulted in something of a conservationist backlash: three in ten say that a lot of the blame is due to consumer waste and SUV‘s, while half says consumer waste is somewhat to blame.

The rising gas prices have furthermore resulted in 70% of Americans driving less, while 22% are considering buying a more fuel efficient vehicle. Higher gas prices and Bush’s neglect of the neediest have even turned into a public relations boon for the likes of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who is set to distribute cheap heating oil to poor communities of color within the United States.

Polls Show Republicans Imploding

In addition, the Republicans have had to swallow the fact that more Americans currently see traditional Democratic issues as their core concerns. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, only 3% of Americans saw social security as their foremost concern. But with the Republican assault on the program, that number has now leapt to 10%. On healthcare, the Republicans are also sliding. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, only 5% of Americans ranked health care as their foremost concern. In what is sure to alarm the Republicans, that figure has now jumped to 11%. People also seem to be growing more concerned about poverty. While only 1% of Americans thought poverty alleviation programs were the most pressing issue after the September 11 attacks, in August 2005 the number jumped to 4%.

Democrats might also benefit from the public backlash against leading Republican figures. With leading Republican figures such as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay under indictment, and Federal prosecutors probing Senate Majority leader Bill Frist’s sale of stock in HCA, the hospital chain started by Frist’s family, Democrats stand to gain. Indeed, 64% of Americans view Congressional Republicans with disapproval.

What is more, other leading Republicans have seen their popularity plummet. With the exception of Condoleezza Rice, whose ratings have increased, other close Bush confidantes are in bad shape. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld faces a 58% disapproval rating, while Vice President Dick Cheney confronts a whopping 60% disapproval mark.

Democrats Fail To Capitalize

Startlingly however, the Democrats have not benefited from this Republican collapse, choosing instead to remain mute on the war and pressing social issues. All the leading Democratic hopefuls for the 2008 election, including Senators Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry granted the president authorization to go to war in Iraq in 2002. Of the 77 Senators who voted for the war, 8 Democrats are up for re-election. They include: Maria Cantwell of Washington, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Hillary Clinton of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Thomas Carper of Delaware, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin and Bill Nelson of Florida. In the House, there are still 53 original pro-war Democrats, about one quarter of the party’s fold in that body. Though the American public is unhappy with the Republicans, they are clearly displeased with the Democratic leadership as well. A stunning 65% amongst the public views Congressional Democrats with disapproval.

Shocking The System: Sheehan and The Anti-War Movement

Meanwhile, as the two parties implode, the anti-war movement has been gathering steam. Cindy Sheehan, whose son died in Iraq serving in the armed forces, has reinvigorated progressive forces and restored hope. To her credit, Sheehan has targeted not only Bush by encamping outside of his Crawford ranch, but also Congressional Democrats. She recently criticized pro-war Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has refused to support an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Speaking in San Francisco, Sheehan remarked, “”If she [Feinstein] is a strong leader, and if she’s strong about bringing the troops home, we will support her. If she is not, we will withdraw our support from her.” Sheehan added that Feinstein’s reasons for supporting the Iraqi occupation were “very bogus.” What is more, Sheehan remarked, “There is no noble cause. This war is based on lies. To me, it’s not rocket science.” Sheehan continued her crusade in New York, where she declared to a crowd gathered outside of Senator Hillary Clinton’s office that Clinton must either speak out against the war or risk being voted out of office.

Americans seem to be paying attention to Sheehan. According to a CBS poll, 15% of the public reports watching her anti-war protests closely, while 42% say they are somewhat closely paying attention. The public’s views about Sheehan seem to be polarized. While 27% of Americans approve of her, 26% look upon her unfavorably. While 39% feel that Bush should meet personally with Sheehan to discuss the war in Iraq, 30% disagree and say he should not. The public’s views about Sheehan are split along strict partisan lines, although a narrow margin of independents support Sheehan’s request to meet with the president.

What are Sheehan’s intentions? In a column in Josh Frank writes, “New York antiwar advocates are hoping Sheehan will run against Clinton in the Democratic primaries in 2006. Others out West are hoping Sheehan will take on Dianne Feinstein in California.” When Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball asked Sheehan if she were running for Congress, she responded “No, not this time. I’m a one issue person. I know a lot about what’s going on in Iraq but I don’t know anything about anything else. And I want to focus my energy on bringing the troops home.” Matthews replied: “Okay. Well, I have to tell you, you sound more informed than most U.S. Congresspeople, so maybe you should run.”

If Sheehan were to run in California, say as a Democrat or Independent, what kind of response would she be likely to receive? At present, the polls suggest she is a divisive figure. What is more, though Iraq leads in order of importance, a single issue campaign may not be enough to carry the day. On the other hand, California voters have historically been very concerned about issues such as the environment and energy conservation. A savvy campaign might link oil and the war in Iraq to issues such as energy policy and the environment. The polls suggest that such concerns are increasingly on the minds of a volatile electorate, and with the war going badly they are only likely to mount in importance.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF received his doctorate in Latin American history from Oxford University in 2002. His book, South America In Revolt: Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and The Politics of Hemispheric Unity, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press.

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NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.