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The Public Approval Consequences of the Debt Ceiling Debate

[Guest post by Norman Ornstein:]

The “Do Everything” 111th Congress and the “Do Nothing” 112th Congress both have one thing in common: abysmal approval ratings among the public. How can that be? Here is a simple way to explain it. The Affordable Care Act was and is not widely popular—but, if parsed out in public opinion surveys into its individual components, the reaction is very different. Nearly all of the components meet individually with public approval. Now examine the tax compromise achieved by President Obama and Congress in December of last year, the one that extended all the Bush tax cuts until the end of 2012 and sharply raised exemptions while lowering tax rates for estates, among other things. Nearly all of the parts of that deal were widely unpopular—but the deal itself was a huge hit with the public.

In the first case, the seeming contradiction is in the process—fractious, acrimonious, partisan, extended over months of roller-coaster politics and deal-making, all the elements of politics that most Americans hate. The tribal politics in Washington have metastasized into the country, but even most members of the two tribes want the people we elect to come to Washington to get together, transcend the differences, and solve problems. Anything that looks more like mud-wrestling than mature problem-solving through compromise gets a hearty thumbs-down.

And, in contrast, anything that looks like mature problem-solving, even if the parts are questionable, gets a big thumbs-up. Tea Party conservatives are convinced that the 2010 elections were a huge public mandate of support for a radical, cut-government and cut-taxes agenda. The mandate was far more one of trying to get mature individuals to come together and transcend their differences for the public good. That was certainly true of most Democrats and most independents, and a healthy swath of Republicans. But it was not true for the most active share of Republicans, those who dominate caucuses and primaries, and it is the latter group to whom Republican lawmakers are most sensitive.

That public desire to get the people we elect to find solutions explains the new level of public disgust over the embarrassing fandango, extended now for weeks, over the manufactured crisis of the debt ceiling. If indeed the worst case happens (or even if it is a less-worse case,) a lot of voters will be angry. Right now, the ire is mostly directed at those who are taking the my-way-or-the-highway approach: House Republicans. But a truly irate public will take out its frustration more broadly—and, ironically, by aiming first at the “politicians,” the mature ones who actually do believe in compromising to solve problems.