IN A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll released Tuesday, 69 percent of those polled think things in this country "are seriously off on the wrong track."
The "wrong track" numbers haven't been this high since the late 1970s. There were good reasons then for public discontent. The economy was stagnant, but inflation was soaring. The Watergate scandal and our defeat in Vietnam were fresh in the public mind.
But today the stock market is hitting record highs; inflation and unemployment are near record lows. Our discontent is less with our circumstances than with our perception of our political leadership.
President Bush's polling numbers have been plumbing the political depths for quite some time. But he's less unpopular than the Democratic leaders in Congress. Only 27 percent of those surveyed by the L.A. Times and Bloomberg approve of the job Congress has been doing. That's the lowest it's been in a decade.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nevada) had an approval rating of 19 percent - half that of much-maligned Vice President Dick Cheney. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) had a more robust rating of 36 percent. But that's 11 points below Newt Gingrich's job approval rating at a comparable point in his tenure as speaker.
The day before this poll was released, the Senate debated a nonbinding resolution expressing no confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. It was panned even by liberals, such as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank:
"There was one big problem with Lord Protector Schumer's plan: The American system of government does not have 'no confidence' votes," Mr. Milbank wrote.
The Democrats have been long on political stunts like this since they took over Congress, but short on accomplishments. They made a lot of promises, but so far haven't kept them. And voters doubt they ever intended to keep them.
In the L.A. Times poll, just 29 percent of respondents thought Democrats in Congress are working hard to bring fundamental change, compared to 63 percent who said they are governing in a business-as-usual manner.
But the Democrats' loss has not been the Republicans' gain. The GOP is just as unpopular now as it was before voters swept it from power last November.
A major source of discontent has been the war in Iraq. Conservatives are unhappy with the Democratic leadership because of its repeated efforts to force the withdrawal of our troops. Liberals are unhappy because those efforts have failed. Senate Majority Leader Reid is preparing another series of largely symbolic votes on Iraq, which is unlikely to improve his standing with either group.
Another source of unhappiness is the immigration reform bill. Only 23 percent of those polled by the Rasmussen polling firm support it, with 50 percent opposed. Democrats were nearly as likely as Republicans to be against the measure, Rasmussen found, but opposition was proportionally the highest among Independents.
Most of those who oppose the immigration bill do so because they don't believe it will do what its proponents say it will do. Rasmussen found that two thirds of us would accept a compromise that would legalize the status of illegals if the border were secured. But only 16 percent of us think the bill actually would reduce illegal immigration.
Americans are sick of partisan stunts such as the "no confidence" vote on Attorney General Gonzales. But it should matter (though apparently it doesn't) that Mr. Gonzales actually is incompetent. He told a Senate committee he "took responsibility" for firing eight U.S. attorneys but that he didn't know why he'd fired them.
Americans want Democrats and Republicans to work together on what's important. But they're not enamored of "bipartisan" bills hatched behind closed doors by special interest groups, as the immigration bill was.
Americans want a government that works. But our leaders in both parties have been blase about failure because failure has had few consequences for them.
This may be about to change. The polls suggest the peasants are sharpening their pitchforks. A Rasmussen survey indicated 56 percent of Americans think most members of Congress are willing to sell their vote. Another survey suggested 49 percent of us would consider voting for a third-party congressional candidate.
The presidential candidate who proposes real reforms (such as term limits for members of Congress and an end to "earmarks" in spending bills) just might be able to bring together people deeply divided about what to do in Iraq or how to secure our borders.
Jack Kelly is national security writer for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1476.