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More Signs of Trouble for 2010

The current state of American politics presents a paradox. On the one hand, survey after survey testifies to the rock-bottom standing of the Republican Party. Fewer Americans identify with the party than in the past, and fewer trust it to deal with the country’s problems. On the other hand, there are hard-to-ignore signs of a conservative resurgence. A 15,000 person Gallup survey out today shows that 40 percent of Americans now identify themselves as conservative (up from 37 percent at the time of Obama’s election), while only 20 percent regard themselves as liberal (down from 22 percent). Far more independents (35 percent) consider themselves conservative than was the case a year ago (only 29 percent).

These findings would be less compelling if they were not linked to conservative shifts on specific issues--but they are, and the Gallup organization enumerates a considerable list. Among them: increasing opposition to government regulation of business and gun ownership; an uneasy feeling about the influence of labor unions; increasing support for immigration restrictions and government promotion of traditional values; and diminished support for strong action on climate change. The percentage of Americans who believe that government is trying to do too much stands at its highest level (57 percent) in many years. Trust in government is near all-time lows, and Americans believe that 50 cents of every federal tax dollar is wasted--the highest level ever.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that unified Democratic government has sparked a conservative counter-mobilization. Because we cannot rerun history as a controlled experiment, we will never know whether this could have been avoided had the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats adopted a different strategy. In any case, it’s too late to reverse it.

Still, Democrats must ask themselves whether there’s anything they can do over the next year--for example, a meaningful shift toward fiscal restraint--to reduce the intensity level of the conservative assault. If not, the combination of an energized opposition and an electorate battered by high unemployment, slow growth, and the perception of out-of-control spending could set the stage for an ugly outcome. This wouldn’t mean that Republicans had regained credibility as a governing party; odds are that it will take more than two years to erase the public’s sour memories of the Republican congressional majority and George W. Bush’s presidency. It would mean that a substantial portion of the electorate wanted to send Democrats a message that they had gone too far.

The Clinton administration (in which I served) was derailed by the results of its first midterm election, and it took Democrats a decade to recover. While there are reasons to believe that Republicans won’t do as well this time, Democratic leaders should take seriously the possibility of a significant electoral reverse and act strategically to make it less likely.