By The Politico's John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei
Congressional Democrats certainly know the power of a throw-the-bums-out message. It vaulted them to power a year ago this week. Little wonder anxiety is boiling over inside the new majority as lawmakers ponder a succession of polls and reach an inescapable conclusion: Lots of people think they are bums, too.
The anti-Washington mood in the country - aimed at both a Republican president and a Democrat-controlled Congress - has reached breathtaking levels. One has to reach back almost 30 years, to the low points of Jimmy Carter's presidency, to find a time when there was such simultaneous disdain for both the executive and the legislative branches, as measured by Gallup approval ratings.
Amid the bloodshed and flawed execution of the Iraq war, there is no question why Bush is unpopular.
The political problems of congressional Democrats are more debatable - both their origins and how serious they are likely to be a year from now.
Interviews with lawmakers and top party operatives make clear that the Democratic House and Senate caucuses are divided into two camps. One group views the numbers with concern. The other group views them with panic.
"There are a lot of Democratic members who are consumed with" the sour state of public opinion, said one top party operative who works closely with the Democratic leadership.
From the Democratic perspective, there is definitely a case to be made for alarm. It is based on the history of recent decades that shows whenever voters get this unhappy, unpredictable things can happen.
One person who knows that well - his Democratic clients were beneficiaries of the phenomenon in such politically seismic years as 1992 and 2006 - is pollster Stan Greenberg. He came back from the field in October with numbers for NPR that showed 69 percent of voters disapprove of the job Congress is doing - up 20 points from last January and the highest disapproval rating since Democrats reclaimed their congressional majorities. More striking than the data was a focus group Greenberg observed with James Carville, a fellow consultant for the Democracy Corps project and his partner in Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign.
"We've never seen people as angry and frustrated as they are now, ... even more than in '92," he said.
As it happens, however, Greenberg is firmly in the stay-calm camp of the Democratic debate. Along with pollster Mark Mellman, who also consults with Democrats, he has been trying to reassure anxious members with this sunny-side-up message: The public dislikes Republicans even more than they dislike you.
"It's certainly true that people are disgruntled with Congress and lukewarm about the Democrats in general," Greenberg said, adding that, "However modest Democrats' numbers are, Republicans' numbers are much worse and dropping.
"The main story is Republicans are seen as backing the Iraq war, backing Bush and blocking change," he said.
Greenberg's favorability index (voters are asked to give the "temperature" of their feelings, from "very warm" to "very cold") showed that the public had a negative perception of congressional Democrats by four points, and a negative perception of congressional Republicans by 17 points.
Mellman said that Democrats in part are confronting disappointment from their own backers, who are hoping for more immediate results from the new majority, particularly on Iraq.
According to Democrats who have seen a poll he conducted last week, however, Democrats in Congress had a 48 percent favorable rating, with 44 percent reporting an unfavorable opinion.
Republicans in Congress had just a 32 percent favorable rating, with 62 percent unfavorable.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who led the House Democrats' campaign committee during last year's election, said he can live with these numbers for now. "I would not call it a grand slam, but you are on a base," he said Tuesday.
He appealed for realism: "If 70 percent of the country feels rotten about how things are going, you are not going to get them to feel positive about any institution or person."
Mellman said history supports Emanuel's confidence: "There's no consistent relationship between congressional approval and electoral outcomes."
Weak approval ratings for Congress did lead to a change in power benefiting Republicans in 1980 and 1994, and benefiting Democrats in 2006, Mellman noted. But Democrats scored big gains, even with lackluster approval ratings, in 1982, and suffered only modest losses despite abysmal ratings in 1992.
On issues such as protecting the environment (higher CAFE standards for automobiles) and product safety (cracking down on dangerous Chinese toys) and, above all, the war in Iraq, the public is much more sympathetic to Democrats than Republicans, Mellman's data found.
That's why Emanuel is urging his members and political reporters alike to take a breath. "The biggest problem for Bush and his party - besides his unpopularity - he has no agenda, and they have no agenda," he said. "We are the ones proposing. ... Over time, that comes across. At least we are offering to do something."
Still, Republicans know that dissatisfaction with Congress at least offers them a potential opening.
A survey by the Field Poll in California last week showed that in her home state, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the first time in her new job has a plurality of voters disapproving of her performance - 40 percent to 35 percent.
And at a news conference Tuesday, House Republican Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) chortled, "Never has a Congress spent so much time to accomplish so little."
In making this case, the GOP has been getting a boost from Jay Leno, who mocked House Democrats in his monologue on Monday and Tuesday nights, in particular the recent news that Democrats are backing off their 2006 campaign pledge for longer workweeks. "I guess they realize they don't need a full five days to do nothing," Leno cracked. "They can now do nothing in four days."