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Patience Wears Thin

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Voters seem to be channeling baseball's Casey Stengel these days, echoing his memorable lament, "Can't anybody here play this game?"

Last fall, the American people rather robustly threw the Republicans out -- ending their control of the House and Senate because of disenchantment about the war in Iraq, scandals, high government spending and deficits, and a perception that the GOP in Congress had grown arrogant and out of touch.

Now the Democratic-controlled Congress seems unable to change the course of U.S. involvement in Iraq; the party has enacted just one of its top six priorities into law (a minimum-wage hike); and the immigration deal has collapsed. The public's patience with the Democrats is wearing thin.

Charles Franklin's trend estimate on Pollster.com -- a fairly sophisticated, very reliable but slow-motion version of a moving average -- shows that Congress's job-approval rating has dropped to 31 percent from about 34 percent earlier this year. But a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg News poll conducted after the immigration bill stalled in the Senate put Congress's approval at 27 percent, with disapproval rising to 65 percent.

These numbers suggest that Americans disapprove of the job the Democratic Congress is doing just as strongly as they disapproved of the performance of the GOP Congress last year. And the Los Angeles Times' congressional approval rating is the lowest it has been in that poll in a decade.

In that L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll, just 29 percent of respondents agreed that "Democrats are working hard to bring fundamental change," and a whopping 63 percent thought instead that Democrats were "governing in a business-as-usual manner."

Although a January L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll gave House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a 34 percent positive job-approval rating and a 21 percent negative rating, her ratings in the new poll were 36 percent positive, 39 percent negative.

Even though the Democrats can take some solace in Franklin's computations that give Republicans in Congress a lower job-approval rating (35 percent) than congressional Democrats (38 percent), elections are referendums on the party in power, not the party out of power. Nevertheless, Democrats can also find comfort from the public's 64 percent disapproval of congressional Republicans, compared with only 47 percent disapproval of the Democrats in Congress.

On "Fox News Sunday" recently, moderator Chris Wallace grilled Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., on the Democratic agenda items that seem stuck somewhere in the legislative process. Durbin had plausible explanations for why each had not been enacted into law, but the bottom line is that the Democrats have achieved only one of six major goals.

Granted, the 110th Congress is only five months old, but -- to clean up an old expression -- excuses are like rear ends; everybody's got one and they all stink. Democrats need to get more points on the scoreboard soon -- or get better at explaining why they haven't yet been able to do what they said they would.

On immigration, it is true that the issue touches a much rawer nerve within the GOP base than it does among Democrats. And those who are vehemently opposed to anything that they can portray as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants should be (but aren't) unhappier over the immigration bill's collapse than anyone else is. Nevertheless, most Americans -- and even most Republicans -- support most elements of the bill. Furthermore, voters will blame Congress as a whole for failing to do anything about the nation's immigration problems.

CNN commentator (and fellow National Journal columnist) William Schneider suggests that the major elements of the immigration bill would have an easier chance of passage if they were broken apart. Yet the authors of the Senate bill seem convinced that they will achieve a "grand bargain" and find 60 votes to move the comprehensive bill forward. Well, that clearly hasn't worked so far. So maybe they should try Schneider's approach, just for grins.

A key Democratic leader privately warned a couple of months ago that Democrats could not rely on the situation in Iraq -- no matter how enormously hurtful it is to Bush and the GOP -- to hand the next election to the Democratic Party. Voters want congressional Democrats to move the ball forward on many issues, he maintained. The latest polling suggests that he was absolutely right.

 
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