The Fiscal Crisis Could Endanger Both Parties in 2012

Congress's popularity is sinking, and lawmakers should worry about deflated enthusiasm and the wrath of voters fed up with bad economic news

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After Monday's gut-wrenching 634 point, 5.6 percent drop in the Dow Jones industrial average, any sense of complacency, of business as usual, should be gone.

Until the bottom fell out of the stock market, the partisanship and dysfunction in Washington appalled many Americans, but seemed abstract. It's more relevant now. Voters see real consequences when they look at their retirement funds; they see themselves as paying the price for the partisan games that politicians play. To them, it seems unreasonable to expect a AAA bond rating when leaders from both parties and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are turning in single 'A' performances.

To be fair, Monday's plunge was the continuation of a drop of 2000 points in the Dow since April 29 and is about more than Standard and Poor's downgrade of the government's credit rating. The debt-limit fight masked another huge problem: an enormously anemic economy, one that has yet to recover from the 2007-2009 recession. Like an airplane with engine problems, just barely skimming above the tree tops, this economy has had little margin for error. The sovereign debt crises in the Eurozone and the after effects of the Japanese tsunami exacerbated a weak economy that didn't have the strength to sustain itself now that the 2009 economic stimulus is mostly over. Whatever one thought of it (I thought it was too small, unfocused, and undisciplined), it did do some good, but now it's gone and the only real stimulus remaining is the unprecedented intervention by the Federal Reserve Board.

So what about the politics of 2012? One way of looking at next year's elections is to say that unlike 2006 and 2008, when voters were angry at Republicans, and 2010, when they shifted their animus toward Democrats, the anger today seems more oriented toward everyone in Congress, the gridlock seems more systemic, and the solution less partisan. The lowly 14 percent approval (82 percent disapproval) for Congress in the August 2-3 CBS News/New York Times poll of 960 adults (with a 3-point error margin) was underscored by only 15 percent thinking most members of Congress deserve reelection and 75 percent don't think that most deserve reelection.

But unlike the last three elections, the anger is twice as bad as in either of those because in each of those, the animosity was focused on one party, benefiting the other. Voters are now either angry or disappointed in both sides. When 72 disapprove of "the way Republicans in Congress have handled the negotiations on the debt ceiling," (just 21 percent approved) and the only marginally better 66 percent disapproval for the way Democrats handled it (28 percent approval), it should be a warning to both parties to tread very carefully.

Republicans should particularly take note of the responses to the question, "Which do you think is better for the country? Should the Democrats and Republicans compromise some of their positions in order to get things done, or stick to their positions even if it means not getting as much done?" 85 percent preferred compromise, only 12 percent chose the stick to positions approach. Principles are fine until they get in the way of getting the job done. Another sobering point for the GOP to ponder is this: when asked, "Who do you trust more to make the right decisions about the nation's economy, Republicans in Congress or Barack Obama," 47 percent gave the nod to Obama, just 33 percent to Republicans. President Obama has lost a lot of credibility on the economy, Republicans need to consider that he still beats them by 14 points.

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Charlie Cook is editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report and a political analyst for National Journal.

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