"The mood of America is glum. Two-thirds of the public is dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country" and voters' anti-incumbent mood is approaching 1994 and 2006 levels, when control of Congress changed hands.
So reported the Pew Research Center on Nov. 11, summarizing its latest poll.
I think there's reason to believe that the public's anger is even deeper than Pew's estimate because voters believe — correctly — that "the way things are going" is not getting better.
If so, and with Republicans and Democrats fighting all the time and improving nothing, there's an opening for a third-party challenge as strong as Ross Perot's in 1992.
Running against deficits, free trade and the inadequacies of the two major parties, the quirky industrialist led the field with 39 percent of the vote in June 1992, dropping to just 18.9 percent in November because he torpedoed his own campaign.
The likeliest figure to seize upon this opening is populist demagogue (and self-styled "Mr. Independent") Lou Dobbs, formerly of CNN, so let's hope a better alternative appears — or the direction of the country improves.
But, right now, the prospects are dismal. My favorite economic guru, David Smick, editor of International Economy magazine, summarized them in a speech last week at the Colony Club of New York, soon to be excerpted in Commentary magazine.
"Americans are worried," he said, "about a pending national fiscal nightmare that could doom the U.S. economy to slow growth and second-rate status.
"They instinctively sense we may be becoming like Britain after the Second World War, quickly fading in relevance, our currency losing credibility, our industrial and entrepreneurial edge dulled, our people deeply frustrated."
For one thing, he said, for unemployment to fall from 10.2 percent to 5 percent, the economy would have to produce 250,000 jobs a month for the next five years, whereas the average monthly job growth rate over the past 20 years has been 90,000.
"Reducing unemployment to where it was before the (current) crisis may be impossible," he said. "So get ready for an American workforce full of long-term anxiety — and anger."
Smick, once chief of staff to the late Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and a 1996 presidential campaign adviser to Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.), added that the barely recovering economy is burdened by "a 300-pound backpack of personal and public debt."
"Within a decade," he said, "the U.S. will be borrowing $722 billion a year just to pay interest" on the national debt.
"We're about to enter a fiscal trap, chasing our tail just to pay off our creditors. That's the experience of Third World regimes. Their currencies lose all credibility. They suffer from high and crushing interest rates, ending up as wards of the International Monetary Fund."
Smick is an expert on all this. He's made a fortune as an international trader and he wrote a best-selling book, "The World Is Curved," on the dangers of the unregulated world financial system.
Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama ("George W. Obama") have made matters worse, he said.
"Both proposed huge new entitlements with no way of paying for them. Both are at a loss at understanding the means of creating new private sector employment opportunities. …
"Both offered the big Wall Street banks an incredible $700 billion in taxpayer funding with no stipulation that the banks lend the money, which today they are not doing."
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Smick says, is trying to keep the economy afloat by holding down interest rates — but all that means is that big banks borrow at zero, invest (often overseas) at 3 percent or 4 percent, make huge profits and refuse to lend to small U.S. businesses, which create 70 percent of new jobs.
Smick thinks the Obama administration should have forced banks to lend their bailout money before paying it back and included an investment tax credit for business in its stimulus package.
"What Washington can provide is a climate conducive to innovative risk," he said. "But that's not today's climate, where the tax, regulatory and financial future are as terrifyingly uncertain as at any time in postwar history."
Smick agrees that the moment is ripe for a third-party candidate — "a problem-solving, no-nonsense leader who can come to Washington to clean out the swamp created by both political parties."
"We need to reignite America's fires of innovation, daring and confidence. If the current crowd in Washington lacks this vision, the American people, I can assure you, will find someone who has it."
He's not talking about Lou Dobbs here. Or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R). And unfortunately, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and Gen. David Petraeus don't seem to be running. But there is an opening.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)