If youre thinking that

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If you’re thinking that Democrats on the Hill are feeling emboldened of late, you’re right. As the AP reported on April 7th, Geoff Garin, a well-known Dem pollster, and Paul Begala met with a group of Dem Senators and basically assured them that — given the political situation, poll-numbers, etc. — they had little to fear from confronting the president on a wide-range of issues — particularly on the Budget/tax/Social Security front.

I don’t think this was mentioned in the original AP story, but apparently this was some sort of message group that Dick Durbin (Democrat of Illinois and a possible 2004 dark horse) has put together.

In any case, one person who was at the meeting tells me that the Senators seemed more focused, angry, and ready to fight than at any time in recent memory, which is nice to hear.

Let’s look a little more closely, though, at the ‘internals’ of the polls which were discussed.

Every marquee public poll routinely asks some version of this question: Does politician X care about/understand the problems people like you face?

Pollsters would undoubtedly come up with some more elegant, technically appropriate phrasing. But you get the idea.

In any case, Bill Clinton always scored very, very well on this question. Even when his job approval ratings (and certainly his personal approval ratings) weren’t so hot, this number remained strong.

This is a measurement of what we might call the politics of empathy, social science’s measurement of “I feel your pain,” etc. I’ve always thought, as many others have as well I suspect, that this was the secret ground of Clinton’s political resilience, his ability to bounce back from so many apparently fatal blows.

The late 1990s produced a quite false political truism which held that so long as the economy was growing at more than 4% annual GDP the president could snort coke, deflower cheerleaders, behave poorly at state dinners and still keep his job approval rating over 60%.

As a Clinton diehard, I’m not above conceding that Bill put this theory to the test a few times. But the thesis is simply false. The state of the economy is very important to a president’s approval rating, but not decisive. The politics of empathy were equally vital to Clinton’s political survival.

Which brings us back to the current occupant of the Oval Office. One of the numbers which got a lot of attention at the meeting noted above was this from the recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll: by a measure of about 2 to 1 Americans believe George W. Bush cares more about corporate interests than the people’s interest. That’s basically a proxy for the “feel your pain” question noted earlier.

This is a sign of a deep underlying vulnerability. If the public perception that Clinton understood and cared about ordinary people’s problems buoyed him through turbulent political waters, the lack of such a perception for Bush should make his popularity fragile when times get tough.

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