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Voters show darker mood than in 2000

Presidential candidates are confronting an electorate unsettled about the United States’ ability to control its future.
/ Source: The New York Times

Whatever their ideological differences this election year, Americans seem able to agree on one thing: the political landscape being crisscrossed by the 2008 candidates is barely recognizable as the one traveled by and a mere eight years ago.

Obviously, Sept. 11 and its aftermath have changed the country in countless and irretrievable ways. But even beyond the emergence of war and national security as pre-eminent concerns, there has been a profound reordering of domestic priorities, a darkening of the country’s mood and, in the eyes of many, a fraying of America’s very sense of itself.

While not universal, that tone pervaded dozens of interviews conducted over the last week with Americans of all political stripes in 8 of the 24 states that hold primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5, as well as with historians, elected officials, political strategists and poll takers. As the candidates fan out to New York and California and here to the heartland, they are confronting an electorate that is deeply unsettled about the United States’ place in the world and its ability to control its own destiny.

Since World War II, the assumption of American hegemony has never been much in doubt. That it now is, at least for some people, has given this campaign a sense of urgency that was not always felt in 2000, despite the dramatic outcome of that race.

Several writers and historians remarked on the psychological impact of such a jarring end to the Pax Americana, just as it seemed that victory in the cold war might usher in prolonged prosperity and relative peace (save the occasional mop-up operation). Its confluence with an era of unparalleled technological innovation had only heightened the nation’s sense of post-millennial possibility.

Loss of autonomy
Now, Americans feel a loss of autonomy, in their own lives and in the nation. Their politics are driven by the powerlessness they feel to control their financial well-being, their safety, their environment, their health and the country’s borders. They question whether each generation will continue to ascend the economic ladder. That the political system seems so impotent only deepens their frustration and their insistence on results.

As she considers this campaign, Susan C. Powell, a 47-year-old training consultant who lives in a Kansas City suburb, said that what she feels is not so much hopelessness as doom.

“I know plenty of people who are doing worse than they were,” Ms. Powell said, “and nobody’s helping them out. People’s incomes are not keeping pace with inflation. People can’t afford their homes. People in their 30s and 40s, middle-income, and they don’t have jobs they can count on or access to health care. How can we say that we’re the greatest country on earth and essentially have the walking wounded?”

, a top strategist for Mr. Gore in 2000, recalled the factors that drove public opinion then — like a modest increase in fuel prices and the bursting of the technology stock bubble — as “naïvely quaint by today’s standards.” His Republican counterpart, Mark McKinnon, who advised Mr. Bush in 2000 and now works for Senator , said the electorate saw this campaign as far more consequential. “It feels like we’re collectively more mature, or collectively more evolved,” Mr. McKinnon said.

The change in tone came through in interviews in coffee bars, barbecue joints and shopping malls as people vented about unaffordable health premiums, porous international borders, freakish weather, government eavesdropping, Chinese imports and customer service calls that are answered in India.

Like many of those interviewed, Robert W. Jennings, a 45-year-old Kansas City landlord who considers himself politically independent, said he thought the stakes were higher than in 2000, when the country last chose new leadership after an eight-year incumbency. Two years ago, after the adjustable-rate mortgage on his apartment building kicked in, Mr. Jennings had to take an hourly job for the first time in a decade, at the Home Depot. It also provided him with his only health insurance since college.

“I used to be master of my universe,” he said from a bar stool at McCoy’s Public House. “Now I work for this soul-less corporation. I used to make the rules. Now I have to follow them.”

Mr. Jennings also does not like the war in Iraq, or its impact on the country’s international standing. “Most of the times I go overseas I say I’m Canadian,” he said. “I just get a better response.”

Erosion of country's self-image
Public opinion polling is also detecting an erosion of the country’s self- image. A CBS News/ New York Times poll taken this month found that 75 percent of respondents thought the country had “pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track,” up from 44 percent in May 2000.

Not surprisingly, that judgment varies by political affiliation. But even 42 percent of Republicans agreed, not far shy of the 52 percent who said so in 1999, in the twilight of an eight-year Democratic presidency.

That year, President hailed the economic momentum of the 1990s by declaring that “the state of our union is the strongest it has ever been.”

“Never before,” he said in that speech, “has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats.”

This year’s dissatisfaction seems to have less to do with any fundamental shift in the nation’s ideological and partisan leanings than with its broadening displeasure with the Bush administration’s handling of the war and the economy. In CBS News/New York Times polls taken in February 2000 and January this year, the percentages of respondents who aligned themselves with a given party or ideology were almost precisely the same.

It is not yet clear how the discontent may be affecting the primary races. The Republican race remains a muddle, and the one Democratic candidate who has made the most populist appeal to change the nation’s direction — former Senator — remains a distant third. So far, at least, his message has not caught on in a race that has been marked more by the historic nature of the campaigns run by Senators and .

Nonetheless, any of the Democrats would represent a sharp break with the policies of the last eight years, and polls suggest that the Democrats began this year with a political advantage they could not have imagined eight years ago. Asked a year before the 2000 election which party’s candidate they were likely to support, respondents were evenly divided. Asked the same question this month, they favored the Democrats by 18 percentage points. Much of the shift is thought to have been among independents.

That swing, fueled by antiwar sentiment, helped the Democrats win control of Congress in 2006. In some states, there is evidence of its impact well down the ballot. In Denver’s once reliably Republican suburbs, for instance, Democratic voter registration has grown since 2000 at 10 times the rate of Republican registration.

John Brackney, president of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, and a former commissioner in suburban Arapahoe County, recalled being mocked when he wore one of his old campaign shirts to the neighborhood pool last summer. “Oh, you’re wearing a Republican shirt,” someone said.

“That wouldn’t have happened eight years ago,” Mr. Brackney observed.

Issues shift
The issues have also shifted. Of the top eight political concerns found in a CBS News/New York Times poll this month, only three were on the list eight years ago. Terrorism, , the environment and fuel prices did not register a blip back then. (The other top concern identified in recent polling was the Iraq war.)

In the 2000 campaign, it was possible for Mr. Bush to deride Mr. Gore’s environmentalism to considerable effect. Eight years later, Mr. Gore is a Nobel laureate, and coiled light bulbs and hybrid cars are status symbols.

“Before, I didn’t feel personally guilty if I left a light on,” said Meg Campbell, director of a charter high school in Dorchester, a working-class neighborhood in Boston. “It just wasn’t in the drinking water back then. Now it’s almost a religion.”

Since the campaign of 2000, the United States has lost 4,400 men and women in wars overseas, and nearly 3,000 people in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Hispanics have become the country’s largest minority, accounting for nearly half of annual population growth. Gasoline prices have doubled, and the home foreclosure rate has increased by 55 percent.

The proportion of Americans without health insurance, which was declining at decade’s end, has grown by 2 percentage points. Both the unemployment and poverty rates are a percentage point higher. War spending has helped convert a $236 billion surplus into a $163 billion deficit (reduced from $413 billion in 2004).

Reversal of the American dream
Some of those interviewed, like Raymond E. Dixon, a Kansas City computer programmer, said they were confident their children would not enjoy the same standard of living they had, calling it a reversal of the American dream. Several said the force of such rapid change, reinforced by the foreboding symbolism of airport security lines and orange alerts, had left the country gimlet-eyed, and wary.

“There was something out there we got blindsided by,” said Emily Kemp, a 30-year-old investment worker in Boston who was an Army officer until 2004. “At least now we know, and we are actively attempting to thwart that threat.”

Certainly, some Americans remain bullish. Charles K. Spencer, a 71-year-old investment adviser who lives in the Kansas City suburbs, said he was “unabashedly optimistic” about the future facing his four grandchildren. Technology and the free market will provide them with unlimited opportunity, Mr. Spencer said, so long as they are willing to relocate and retrain.

But the more common theme, that of innocence lost, was voiced by Erwin L. Epple, 54, and his wife, Fumiyo, 64, who were in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, and saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon. “We said that day that our grandchildren will grow up in a different world, assuming the worst about people instead of the best,” said Mr. Epple, who owns a pizza franchise in Knoxville, Tenn.

Many of those interviewed remembered the emphasis placed in the 2000 campaign on restoring personal integrity to the Oval Office. Several volunteered that the focus of the current campaign should be on the rectitude of the country’s role in the world.

“In 2000,” said Philip R. Dupont, a Kansas City lawyer, “one of Bush’s big platforms was that he’d restore honesty and integrity to the White House. Then he went out and attacked a sovereign nation that had done nothing to us.”

As issues like health care, and immigration have become more urgent, Americans seem less willing to dismiss failures of government and political polarization as business as usual. It feels more personal to them now, and they are demanding results.

Mr. Epple boiled with frustration as he vowed to vote for the candidate who convinces him that he or she is most able to solve problems. “I’m sick and tired of the party line and the platitudes,” he said. “I’m hearing hope. I’m hearing trust. But I’m not hearing solutions.”

Reporting was contributed by Randal C. Archibold in Los Angeles, Abby Goodnough in Boston, Kirk Johnson in Denver and Sam Roberts and Megan Thee in New York.