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by Michael Winship

Six Months to Midterm Elections, Bush's Popularity at Record Low

America's in a pissy state of mind. "Sour," according to Karl Rove. "Battle fatigue" is how President Bush described it to a group of Florida newspaper reporters last week, blaming it on Iraq and the media.

Last Thursday's Wall Street Journal reported, "Given the negative national mood, Republicans say they have little choice but to run 'localized' campaigns in hopes that enough constituents will make an exception for them. 'People are totally comfortable with criticizing Congress but then voting for their congressman,' says Carl Forti, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee...

"But 2006 is shaping up to be different. Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan election analyst, says there is no doubt 2006 is a nationalized election year that threatens a wipeout for the party in power. Republican pollster David Winston argues that in an Internet age of Web blogs, talk radio and cable news, all politics henceforth are national, not local."

One candidate in full embrace of that argument is Eric Massa, the Democrat running in upstate New York's 29th Congressional District against Republican freshman Randy Kuhl -- recently described by the New York Times as "perhaps the most vulnerable of any incumbent."

Massa, a 24-year Navy vet and former aide to General Wesley Clark, is one of the "Fighting Dems," the dozens of veterans running for the House in this year's midterm elections. A technocrat by training and inclination, he has made the Internet a campaign tool, become a weekly blogger on such sites as Daily Kos, TPM Cafe and My DD, and has even hired Sanford Dickert, former Kerry/Edwards chief technology officer, as his campaign manager.

Massa's counting on voters' discontent with the state of the nation overriding both their concern about more local issues and the body politic's inclination to vote for the incumbent.

For now, the national numbers seem to back him up. According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, "The survey shows a majority of the public, 56 percent, saying they would prefer to see Democrats in control of Congress after the elections... When asked whether they were inclined to reelect their current representative to Congress or look around for someone new, 55 percent said they were open to someone else." And in a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, “Likely voters by 49 percent to 30 percent said that national issues will be more important in their decisions than their representative's local record. That is unusually high; by contrast, just before the 1994 midterm wave drove Democrats from power in Congress, a slight majority still said local issues were more important."

Not that Massa doesn't see and understand the importance of local issues; it's just that he sees them in a national context. The possible closing of Veterans Administration facilities in Canandaigua and Bath, New York -- an important employer in both upstate towns -- perplexes. He says, "We have seen such an increase in the demand of veterans' services as the war in Iraq continues and those National Guard and reserve and active duty people come back and yet we've seen only compensated for inflation gains in budgetary requirements. I'm very concerned."

As for the region's chronic unemployment, "We see Delphi Corporation preparing for massive layoffs, Xerox, Kodak, Dal-Tile in Cattaraugus County is at risk; Weyerhaeuser Cardboard in Elmira is shutting down... And the problem is, my opponent is an ardent free trader. He cast the deciding vote for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA, son of NAFTA. This is destroying what industry we have left.

"He says he did it because he talked to the CEO of Kodak. I personally would have talked to a couple of thousand people who have lost their jobs at Kodak, but he talked to the CEO of Kodak and the CEO of Kodak told him, according to Mr. Kuhl in the newspaper, that we need CAFTA because he'd be able to sell more of the disposable Kodak cameras in Latin America because they don't have a large digital market. So we went and bought one of those cameras and guess what? Made in Mexico. Had nothing to do with the workforce in Rochester. Nothing. Now, it may give a very few executives larger bonuses, but I think we need to elect people who are more focused on the other 99 percent of the American population."

Among the local industries affected are the vineyards of the district's Finger Lakes region. "CAFTA is a knife in the back of every wine grower in the Finger Lakes, and they know it," Massa said. "We can't compete against Chilean grapes just like we can't compete against Chinese apples. What's good globally is not good locally and it's killing America and it's very definitively killing our home in the 29th Congressional District. Our most successful crop is closed factories."

Massa insists that not he but Rep. Kuhl "has decided to make this a national referendum about George Bush by supergluing himself to the president... Now if you want to run on George Bush's coattails, I think you just signed up to be the navigator on the Titanic because I happen to disagree with the direction the president is taking this country. And I happen to disagree with the fact that my opponent is very proud of being one of the staunchest supporters in Congress of the president's agenda. I think it's a failed agenda, be it foreign or domestic. Be it the bankruptcy bill, the budget cuts, the tax cuts for the one percent that are wealthy, our lack of strategy in Iraq, our inability to cope with Iran, gasoline prices after five years of this administration that are off the chart."

In town meetings, Massa says the uppermost concerns are jobs and health care, but "the most often asked series of questions is about Iraq... I believe that history will judge our invasion of Iraq as being the single largest strategic blunder in the history of this nation. It is costing us and will cost us so much of our nation's future that at this point it is incalculable. And my opponent supported it and supports it, and his only explanation is I'm with the president, stay the course. I'm sorry, that's not leadership, that's follower-ship..."

Massa's the first to admit that his cool, perhaps overprogrammed personality is not the type to which area voters may immediately take a shine: "No one who knows me or who's around me for thirty minutes would describe me as a feel good, group hug kind of guy."

He's not your garden-variety, backslapping pol, but in these parlous times that could be a good thing. Massa warns, "If we do not put a new majority in the House of Representatives, the Bush administration will have 24 months of unfettered non-accountability, because they'll have nothing and no one to answer to... We need a balance of power in Washington, DC, not a rubber stamp. And I think we need to elect people who have a real life in the real world and don't live as professional politicians. We have people in Congress today who don't know what it's like to pay a mortgage, to fill a car up with a tank of gas and educate their kids, let alone do it on a minimum wage.

"The Founding Fathers said it best. They said that America is best when it's governed from the middle, and America is safest with checks and balances. We don't have that today. We have one part of one party governing not only the House, the Senate and the White House, but also the judiciary, the bureaucracy and the Pentagon. I don't think that's to the nation's best interest...

"I'm not a politician. But we didn't have any politicians in 1776. They didn't exist. And maybe it's time we got back to that."

© 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York

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Albion Monitor   May 16, 2006   (

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