Confidence in Congress has hit an all-time low. A mere 14 percent of Americans tell Gallup pollsters that they have a great deal or quite a lot of faith in the US House and Senate.Since Gallup began using the current measure of confidence in Congress in 1973, the worst rating had been the 18 percent figure accorded it in the early years of the 1990s, when the House was being rocked by scandals that would eventually see a number of top Democratic lawmakers rejected in their own party primaries and the "Republican revolution" vote of 1994.
To give a sense of just how bad things are for Congress, consider this notion: Americans express more confidence in corporate HMOs--the most despised manifestation of a health-care industry that lends itself to all of the scorn heaped upon it by Michael Moore's new film Sicko -- than in their elected representatives at the federal level.
It is true that confidence in Congress had been sinking in recent years, in large part because of frustration by the American people with the acquiescence by the formerly Republican-controlled House and Senate to the neo-conservative foreign policies of the Bush administration and to the Wall Street-driven domestic policies.
But the shift in control of both chambers after last November elections was supposed to change that.
No one expected Democrats to fix everything that was wrong with the United States, let alone the world.
But there was an expectation of progress--especially on the central issue of the moment: ending the war in Iraq.
That expectation, a basic and legitimate one in a functioning democracy, has not been met. And it has created a sense of frustration, and in many cases anger, on the part of Americans who really did want the Democrats to succeed--not in gaining partisan advantage but in the far more essential work of checking and balancing the Bush administration. Some leading voices of opposition, including anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, have simply given up on the Democratic Party. And no one should underestimate that, even if Sheehan says she no longer wants to be the face of the anti-war movement, Sheehan's denunciation of the Democrats for failing to seriously challenge Bush's management of the war is an honest and clear expression of the sense of betrayal that a great many Americans who voted Democratic in 2006 are now feeling.
That's the bad news for Democrats.
The good news is that they still have time to change course.
Doing so is easier than political pundits and cautious politicians would have Americans believe.
If Congressional Democrats want to reconnect with the great mass of Americans who want this war to end, they need only turn to Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold for advice and counsel. Feingold, who voted against authorizing Bush to attack Iraq and has been the steadiest voice of Senate opposition to the war since then, has been calling for the better part of two years for Congress to establish a timeline for withdrawal.
For a long time, Feingold stood alone. But, slowly, he has built a base within the Senate Democratic Caucus for the premise that Congress must lead.
Earlier this year, Feingold got Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, on board with his proposal to begin redeploying US troops from Iraq in 120 days. Under the Feingold-Reid plan, the process of withdrawal would be completed by April 2008.
When the Senate considered the Feingold-Reid proposal in May, as an amendment to a broader war funding measure, it received 29 votes--far short of a majority. The problem then was that leading Democrats in the Senate, particularly Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin and a key Democratic senator on military matters, Rhode Island's Jack Reed, actively criticized the plan Feingold had offered. Levin went to far as to echo White House talking points that suggested setting a timeline for withdrawal might undermine both the security of the troops on the ground in Iraq and the prospects for a smooth transition of that country from US to Iraqi control.
But Levin and Reed now seem to be changing their tune. Levin indicated this week that he and Jack Reed would introduce an amendment to the upcoming Defense Authorization bill that is likely to mirror the Feingold-Reid proposal's call for redeployment in 120 days and the completion of a fuller withdrawal by April 2008. Levin is now trying to suggest that his proposal is an improvement on Feingold's plan. It's not. And Levin's inability to gracefully acknowledge that his colleague from Wisconsin has been right all along is both embarrassing and counterproductive.
But the acceptance by the Senate Armed Services Committee chair of the wisdom on a time a timetable for redeployment with a hard deadline represents genuine progress. For Congressional Democrats it is, as well, essential progress. If they want to win the confidence of the American people, they must do something. And the "something" most Americans want most at this point in an end to a war that should never have been launched in the first place.
John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
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