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.

We could very well see a situation where voters just start throwing incumbents out of windows, with those in competitive seats situated closer to the open windows. Only in the 1992 election, just after the twin House Bank and House Post Office scandals, have we seen an election with more than 10 House incumbents of each party losing reelection to the opposite party, and that was after an unusually large number of retirements and primary-election defeats. Worth noting is that was a post-redistricting election, just as 2012 is. But this one could be much worse than 1992, this is far more consequential than personal financial peccadilloes.

But another way of viewing 2012 might be that each party may face a different challenge. For Republicans, it is the growing perception among independent voters that the GOP is too partisan and too ideologically inflexible, and that these traits are hurting the country. Republicans forget that the 2010 election was more about voters, particularly independent voters, who were unimpressed and skeptical of the economic stimulus, cap-and-trade, and health care reform. Voters were angry at Democrats; they didn't vote for any GOP agenda that was concocted after the fact. One of the biggest mistakes parties make is to think they had a mandate when they didn't. Republicans had no more mandate in 2010 than Democrats did in 2006 or 2008. In each case, voters were lashing out at a party they were mad at, not embracing some agenda. Ex post facto mandates are crippling to parties but they still try to convince themselves that they were selected rather than the other party rejected. With independents closing in on 40 percent of a presidential electorate, this is a real problem for the GOP.

But Democrats have to worry about turnout. Minorities and young people turbo-charged the 2008 victory, but they have been most hurt by this recession. It's not that these voters are turning against Obama, but their enthusiasm may have waned--they simply won't be running to the polls singing happy days are here again. And while liberals have hardly turned against Obama and Democrats, it's not hard to hear them bemoan what they see as pervasive caving into the GOP and near abandonment of their positions.

It's impossible to tell at this juncture whether Democrats' possible intensity and turnout problem or the GOP's potential problem with independents will be worse. What is safe to say is that we are facing an enormously volatile and turbulent situation. Democratic incumbents in 2006 and 2008 could pretty much rest on their laurels; their side had an enormous tail wind. In 2010, GOP incumbents similarly had little to worry about. This time, incumbents in both parties, at least those with anything remotely approaching competitive districts or lots of new territory, would be well advised to be careful. Anyone expecting a replay of one of the last three elections is likely to be surprised.

Image credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters