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September 24, 2006

The Hate Trap

by Craig Charney

September 24, 2006 — The leftist and liberal throng who cheered Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez at a Harlem church Thursday, a day after he called President Bush “the devil,” are just the latest sign of a real problem for the Democratic Party and the nation: Bush-hate is now the opiate of the party’s base.

A recent Fox News poll gets at the disturbing truth: A majority of Democrats say they want to see the president fail. Such deep hatred is bad news for the country at a time when America needs to bridge the partisan divide. It’s also bad news for the Democrats, who risk repeating the Republicans’ mistakes of a decade ago, driving away the centrists they need to regain power or going too far if they do manage to win.

Fox’s question was revealing: “Regardless of how you voted in the presidential election, would you say you want President Bush to succeed or not?” Democrats said “not,” 51 percent to 40 percent—where the public at large wanted success by almost two to one.

In other words, the rage extends way beyond the lip-pierced Deaniacs, aging hippies and other fringes of the Democratic Party. Lots of otherwise sensible people—suburban moms, hospital orderlies, schoolteachers, big-hatted church ladies—detest George W. Bush.

When these Democrats say they want Bush to fail, might this mean that they simply reject what they see as his far-right religious and corporate agenda? If so, it’s hard to see why independents—hardly right-wing zealots—hope he succeeds by 63 percent to 34 percent. Sadly, much of the Democratic Party wants to see this president crash and burn.

In fact, the fury against Bush has reached unprecedented levels, even compared to the animosity among Republicans to his predecessor. Not long ago, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that “strong disapproval” of Bush was 10 points higher than that recorded for Bill Clinton at any point during his presidency, including his impeachment. (That wasn’t during a war, either.)

Of course, Bush and the Republicans have helped stoke the anger with their own hardball partisanship under Clinton and during this presidency. And there is plenty in Bush’s record that a loyal opposition can legitimately criticize.

Yet if Bush does fail—for instance, if Iraq spirals into civil war or the economy slides into recession—then America is in trouble. Making progress on these key issues, like others facing the country, will require bipartisan solutions, not political finger-pointing.

But even from a strictly electoral perspective, Democrats can’t afford to gloat as disaster strikes. They need to be seen as a credible alternative. They are not one now. Democrats lead in generic House polls because the Republicans’ popularity has slumped, but their own ratings remain almost equally dismal, making their lead a fragile one.

Hate is a fatal response in American politics. It leads to irrational, sectarian, and self-defeating behavior. Republicans, their base consumed by hatred for then-President Bill Clinton, showed this in 1998. Their impeachment drive pushed Clinton’s polls into the stratosphere, yielding unprecedented mid-term gains for the Democrats.
In today’s polarized environment, Democratic candidates feel pressure to respond to their angry voters to avoid the fate of centrist Senator Joseph Lieberman. He lost his Connecticut primary to a blog-powered anti-war newcomer, Ned Lamont. But the positions such candidates take may leave them out of the mainstream and unelectable. Lamont is discovering this in his general election rematch with Lieberman, who is running as an independent.

Some say a little anger is needed to fire up the Democratic base. Reality check: the Democratic base is just two-fifths of the electorate and liberals number just one voter in five. Yet the independent and moderate voters the Democrats must win over to regain a majority are repelled by candidates who pander to rageful supporters with tunnel vision. Of course, Bush and the Republicans may have dug themselves a deep enough hole to let Democrats retake one or both houses of Congress anyway. Discontent over Iraq, the deficit, gas and health care costs, and other issues, is very real and very deep.

Yet a vengeful, subpoena-wielding, overreaching Democratic congressional majority could be just the thing to keep the White House in the hands of the other party in 2008. Ask the Republicans. It’s another lesson they learned the hard way, in 1996.

Charney, president of Charney Research, a New York polling firm, was senior analyst on President Clinton’s 1996 re-election polling team.

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