Scenes From a Meltdown

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

October 20, 2005

"This country is in one heck of a mess."

If there is a single sentiment members of Congress heard while back in their districts this month, that was it.

In the past few days I've been speaking with Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill (mostly Republicans) about the mood back home. I've learned that it's one thing to read in the paper that two-thirds of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. It's an altogether more bracing experience to go to town meetings and church and the supermarket and find this sentiment blasting you in the face.

The most interesting tales came from Republicans elected from districts President Bush carried by fewer than 10 points. Those districts were once moderately supportive of the president, but now, as one member of Congress said, the anger at Bush is so deep it's almost indescribable.

It's a generalized feeling of betrayal. At town meetings, big subjects like Iraq and the deficits barely come up. But there is a sense that this guy Bush promised to make us feel safe, and it's clear from the Katrina fiasco and everything else that we are not safe.

For Republicans from vulnerable districts in the Northeast and Midwest, the president has become, as another member put it, radioactive. These Republicans return from districts where they are being called upon to give back the money Tom DeLay raised for them, and go back to a Washington where G.O.P. indictments, and hence trials, promise to stretch on for years.

And yet Republicans are not panicked. They know that if the election were held today, their base would stay home, but they look over at the Democrats and say: Thank God for Nancy Pelosi. Thank God for Howard Dean. They see that Dean refers to his base as "merlot Democrats," and it confirms their suspicion that the opposition party is really run by imbeciles.

The odd thing is that the Democrats, who have the self-assurance of a beaten dog, feel this way about themselves. Most sense, in their heart of hearts, that they are the Palestinians of American politics: they'll never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The most common word I hear from Democratic partisans to describe their own party is "pathetic."

Indeed, when you look at the graphs showing both parties' approval ratings, it's like looking at a pair of expert-only ski slopes. A Pew Research Center poll showed the parties' approval ratings plummeting to around 32 percent - below their own bases.

So politicians are not panicked, but they are mobilized. They have just a few months to redefine themselves and avoid catastrophe. Over the next weeks, we are going to see an ideas race, as both parties hustle to get out new, positive agendas.

On the Democratic side, the party leadership is in control. To nationalize the election, Democrats are about to roll out a big agenda. Unfortunately, their big idea consists of Spending for Everything and a Return to Fiscal Restraint. The Democrats are promising universal health insurance, college for all, a Manhattan Project on energy and an end to runaway spending. This is using Teddy Kennedy means to achieve Robert Rubin ends. In a country disillusioned with parties, it's going to be a tough sell.

On the G.O.P. side, this is a moment of Republican glasnost. After years of following the leaders, Republicans are suddenly rebelling and innovating on all fronts. Conservatives like Mike Pence and moderates like Mark Kirk are joining forces to battle the old DeLay institutionalists to actually cut spending, including cuts in defense and veterans affairs. Orthodox conservatives are meeting with the renegade John McCain. Members from marginal districts are putting together agendas that will distance them from the dominant G.O.P. voices from the South and West.

The Republicans are going to end up localizing the election. Listening to constituents, these Republicans sense that people are exhausted by big visions and grand dreams. They want small, achievable ideas. The best ones I heard were from members who wanted to promote open-space initiatives and suburban livability, members who wanted to reduce medical paperwork. This is politics on the alderman level, but it's probably right for the moment.

Congress is polarized, but this isn't an ideological moment, liberal or conservative. It's a moment when voters want to know someone is running the country, that there's someone to project authority and take responsibility, to establish international and domestic order, so they can get on with their lives.