- The Washington Times
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Voters are craving new ideas and an end to business as usual in Washington, but in the waning days of the congressional campaigns, candidates from both parties have dusted off their old party playbooks.

Democrats are increasingly turning to Social Security, which they vow to protect and warn Republicans will cut. GOP hopefuls are settling on a tax-cutting, anti-spending message that has delivered past elections to the party.

“You’re seeing the classic contrasting views between Democrats and Republicans on issues of government size, of spending and taxing,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. “Those things are as old and as much a part of the electoral discourse as ever. There is nothing new there.”

With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, and with parties turning their attention to their political bases, they’ve returned to arguments rehearsed and refined over decades, combined with attack ads and broad promises of sweeping reform.

Left unaddressed are clear-cut remedies to the country’s ills, ranging from the $13.68 billion national debt to the country’s 9.6 percent unemployment rate and the long-term solvency of Social Security and Medicare.

As a result, voters have continued to show mixed feelings about which party is best equipped to call the shots on Capitol Hill, and overall display a decidedly anti-Washington mood. That has fueled primary losses for senior incumbents of both parties.

Polls now show that while voters disapprove of Republicans as much, if not more, than their Democratic counterparts, they appear ready to give the GOP a louder voice in both chambers of Congress.

“Voters are flipping back and forth between the parties,” said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the left-leaning Brookings Institution.

“They try the Republican agenda for a while and if it doesn’t produce the results they want, they vote Democratic. Now they are unhappy with poor economic results under Democrats and are willing to give the GOP another shot,” Mr. West said. “This tells us voters aren’t sure which agenda produces the best results. We shouldn’t be surprised at that because economists and policy analysts no longer are sure which policies are most effective.”

Political onlookers say neither party’s message is resonating with voters, but that Republicans are simply benefiting from the anti-incumbent mood and the inability of Democrats to tap into the economic unrest of voters. Some say the White House deserves blame because it erred in putting the federal health care debate ahead of the country’s economic concerns, exhausting its political capital along the way.

“When people see Washington spending all this money and unemployment, while creeping the right direction, hasn’t made the major gains people are looking for, they are going to be anxious,” a Democratic strategist said. “That’s where Democrats screwed up this cycle. They didn’t keep it focused on the economy and to their credit, while Republicans have no clue on how to fix the economy, all they needed to do is put their head down and say, ‘We are not the other guy.’”

That back-and-forth has played out across the country. In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is running ads blasting Republican opponent Sharron Angle, a “tea party” favorite, for saying “we need to phase Medicare and Social Security out.” Another of his ads says Mrs. Angle said “rape victims should be forced to have the baby.”

Mrs. Angle has countered with commercials in which a narrator claims Mr. Reid voted to raise taxes 300 times, including on income and small businesses, and to spend taxpayer money on Viagra.

Early voting statistics this week suggest Mrs. Angle’s message was winning out, with news reports saying early voting among Republicans in Nevada was stronger than among Democrats.

“This is really the right cycle for candidates like Sharron who are feeding into voters’ anger over what’s happened in Washington, D.C.,” said Robert Uithoven, a Reno-based Republican strategist. “You see so many members of Congress campaign back in their home districts and states against Washington. The one person who can’t do that this cycle is Harry Reid.”

Another race that has devolved into classic campaign attacks is in Illinois.

In one ad, from Republican Mark Steven Kirk, a narrator asks, “What do you call someone who wants the government to spend more and raise your taxes to pay for it? Sen. Alexi Giannoulias? You must be kidding. Mark Kirk will spend less, tax less and borrow less.”

Democrats’ Senate campaign committee, meanwhile, has run ads accusing Mr. Kirk of opposing unemployment benefits and the minimum wage, while supporting congressional pay raises.

Dick W. Thompson, a former Chicago alderman who is now a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, said neither of the two men — Mr. Giannoulias, the Democratic state treasurer, nor Mr. Kirk, the five-term Republican congressman — had strayed from the normal boilerplate issues and political potshots that have come to define both parties, and that has left voters disillusioned with either party’s ability to deliver on their promises.

“Anybody who could come in and exactly convince voters they could do something about jobs, or housing, I think would get a flood of support. Candidates say those kind of things, but the voters sort of aren’t buying it.”

He added, “There’s a lack of believability. People don’t really want to see the details as much as they want to be able to believe that someone is telling them the truth that, ‘We will actually do A, B and C,’ within some meaningful time frame, to the voter.”

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