WASHINGTON-Do people here finally understand that Americans beyond the Beltway consider them decidedly dysfunctional?
House Republican leaders showed some sign of "getting it" last week when they unveiled an effort to deploy their members to their home districts to gather constituents’ opinions. Their program, "America Speaks Out," fuses populism and technology with a website allowing voters’ input to meet Republicans’ Main Street town-hall effort.
Among Democrats, U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle of Forest Hills "gets it," saying that congressmen’s job, whatever their party affiliation, is to go out and listen.
"Democrats have to … demonstrate that we are for hardworking Americans," Doyle said, acutely aware that his party has some explaining to do. Otherwise, voters "will look for new leadership."
On the same day, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that voter attacks against Washington are hypocritical. Those who condemn spending, he said, probably want to keep their Social Security and Medicare benefits, and want a big government role in the Gulf oil-disaster recovery.
"There’s a huge contradiction on a daily basis," Kerry said.
After cringing, one Washington-based Democrat strategist said lofty attitudes and rhetoric such as Kerry’s don’t help.
Still unclear is which party Americans trust. Both parties have problems with the tea party movement.
For Republicans, that movement can be a huge boon, bringing out new voters, or a ginormous bust, fracturing the delicate relationship between moderates and conservatives needed for GOP victory.
For Democrats, the problem is voter turnout and interest among the many Main Street and Jeffersonian Democrats dissatisfied with the country’s direction since their party took control. Many of them relate to the tea party’s voter anger.
Independents simply think Washington is out of touch.
"Without a proven track record, the jury is still out on what effect the tea party will have in November," said University of Virginia political analyst Isaac Wood.
The tea party has yet to prove its general-election potential; except for GOP U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s stunning win in Democrat-leaning Massachusetts, its success is limited to boosting conservative candidates in GOP primaries.
Doyle said he will focus on organized town halls this summer, rather than the tea-party-interrupted events he referred to as "cattle calls."
In 1994, Republicans picked up 52 seats. They need fewer in 2010 to take back the House, according to Wood. "But we don’t yet have concrete indications that a wave of that magnitude is on the horizon, despite the wishful thinking of some top Republicans."
The issues likely on Americans’ minds leading up to November have dominated this election cycle already: How big should the federal government be — and how much should it spend and/or tax? When will the economy get better — and when will the unemployment rate drop? When will I lose my job — and/or how can I get a job?
In short, the government, the economy, jobs — and, depending on events, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — are on Americans’ minds, said Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University.
She admitted being astounded that Democrats still don’t "get" that.
The 1994 GOP "revolution" was a stunning electoral achievement that failed to deliver on most of its policy promises, mainly because its members misread the mandate.
That 1994 revolution was not about Republicans; it was about Americans, tired of the status quo, putting the brakes on one party controlling all branches of government.
"The risk is that if the GOP achieves big gains, and they interpret their victory as a validation of platform positions adopted in this planned new document, then new House members next year may repeat the mid-’90s-era mistake of misreading the mandate," cautioned Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University.
And, once again, Americans will want to throw the bums out.