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Mark Shields: Have Democrats Lost it?

As the line blurs between the two parties, Republicans gain clear advantage with voters

Almost everything that comes across my desk is interesting. But only some things are important.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Take the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted by Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican pollster Bill McInturff.

Among the intriguing nuggets concerning voters this election year: While just 30 percent of Americans hold “positive feelings” toward the Republican Party (compared with 37 percent who feel positively toward the Democratic Party), those voters who are most interested in the 2010 elections, and therefore more likely to vote in November, favor Republican control of Congress by an emphatic 56 percent to 36 percent.

Fewer voters (just 10 percent) today have positive feelings toward publicly bailed-out Citigroup than they do toward Gulf oil-spilling BP (11 percent). But both of those unpopular corporations might take some cold comfort from the public’s near-unanimous hostility toward Goldman Sachs, with a lonely 4 percent positive rating and a resounding 50 percent negative from the public.

The one possible consolation from these numbers for current members of Congress is that Wall Street and oil companies are more lowly regarded and more widely disrespected than are they — or the political parties to which they belong.

But, for my money, the most important question in the most recent Journal-NBC News poll has received next to no news coverage. Here it is: “When it comes to the problems of financial markets, do you think that (the Republicans in Congress/the Democrats in Congress) are more concerned about the interests of average Americans or more concerned about the interests of large corporations?”

This question was previously asked in July 2002 during the first term of President George W. Bush. Then, just 28 percent believed that Republicans in Congress were more concerned with the interests of average Americans, while 55 percent identified congressional Republicans with the interests of large corporations. Today, the Republican Party is viewed to be at the beck and call of Big Business. Barely 20 percent of citizens see Republicans as more concerned with the interests of average Americans, while a landslide 71 percent call congressional Republicans more concerned with the interests of large corporations.

Eight years ago, a plurality of voters — 47 percent — saw Democrats in Congress as more concerned with the interests of average Americans, and only 29 percent judged Democrats to be doing the bidding of large corporations. But by 2010, the bottom has fallen out for the Democrats. Now, only 35 percent of respondents say congressional Democrats are more concerned with the interests of average Americans, compared with a majority — 53 percent — who deem the Democrats in Congress more concerned about the well-being of large corporations.

We can argue why this has happened. It is irrefutable that while many American families endure economic pain and live with fear, one sector of the nation’s economy — the financial sector, with its headquarters on Wall Street — has prospered, with record profits and record bonuses. Goldman Sachs and Citi may be near universally disliked and distrusted, but people see all that has occurred — including generous emergency aid from U.S. taxpayers — while Democrats have been in control of Washington. And, yes, most of the Wall Street campaign contributions have moved to the Democrats from the Republicans.

For the heirs of the party of Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to lose the trust of ordinary Americans to fight on behalf of “the little guys” against Big Money is for Democrats to forfeit their moral identity and their historical birthright.

More than 20 years ago, former Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kan., told his fellow Democrats a timeless truth: “Money has made it more difficult for Democrats to define an economic agenda that is different from the Republican agenda: We are taking from the same contributors.”

If 2010 voters continue to see no difference between the two parties on who is the champion of average Americans, then Nov. 2 could be a historic day for Republicans.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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