The ABC News/Washington Post and CNN/Opinion Research national polls released this week that show Congress’s job-approval rating dropping to record low levels are barely creating a ripple—because the news is not new. With the exception of the immediate aftermath of extraordinary events like 9/11, the public routinely holds Congress in, as they say, “minimum high regard.” But now, the new norm is record lows. Both polls showed that upwards of eight of 10 Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike disapprove of the institution—an instance of rare agreement for three such disparate groups.
What is new is that in recent months, the long-held distinction between how voters see Congress overall and how they view their own members of Congress seems to be diminishing as well. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey in August found that 54 percent of respondents would choose the option (if it were on the ballot) to defeat every single member of Congress, including their own. Only 41 percent would not do so. Now, routinely, when voters are given the choice of reelecting their own (unnamed) member of Congress or choosing to “give a new person a chance,” majorities opt for the latter.
One of the more unfortunate trends in recent years has been that Washington and the political world have increasingly looked at politics and policy on a single lateral partisan or ideological plane, without considering other possibly important dimensions. Too many view everything on a left-right ideological axis or on a Democratic-Republican plane, viewing every issue or development as a zero-sum game. If we can make the other side look bad on this issue or subject, we will look better, they reason.
Political operatives and reporters, cable political shows, and Internet blogs tend to feed this tendency. Members of Congress gamely go along with it. Little appreciation exists for how much these attacks damage the institutions or the process. Lawmakers seem unaware that they are also inflicting damage on themselves. The cumulative impact of this mutually assured destruction is that congressional service that used to be viewed back home as a pedestal may start looking like a ditch; the advantage of incumbency, in other words, can become a disadvantage.
When the Gallup Poll tallied up its 20,392 interviews over the 2011 calendar year, it found that a record 40 percent of adults called themselves independents. By comparison, just 31 percent identified themselves as Democrats and 27 percent as Republicans. Those people in politics should consider how independents react to this towel-snapping. Partisan attacks and jockeying for a better position may earn approval from a party’s adherents. But the reaction of independents is something else: They take a dim view of combatants on both sides. Also noteworthy is that while Democrats hold a 4-point edge in overall party identification, when independents are asked which way they lean, more of them point toward the Republican Party than to the Democratic Party—a new development as well. The Gallup “leaned party identification” is now dead even at 45 percent, meaning that 45 percent call themselves Democrats or lean that way, with an identical percentage tilting toward the GOP. The remaining 10 percent are “pure” independents. It’s a safe assumption that this 10 percent takes a dim view of both parties and both chambers of Congress.
Of course, so many districts are drawn so partisanly that it takes a fertile imagination to come up with a scenario in which many incumbents lose reelection. But that list of members who can pretty much do whatever they want shifts a bit from one decade to another as new lines kick in after redistricting. We will undoubtedly see more competitive congressional races in California in 2012 than in the entire last decade because an independent commission drew the lines, forcing some members to clean off the cobwebs on their political organizations, to the extent that they still have organizations, back home. Others may be facing a fresh set of constituents. Will voters see their new members of Congress in the same way that they saw the old ones, particularly if they know next to nothing about them?
Will one-fourth of all House members seeking reelection lose either their primary or general elections this year? Absolutely not. Will a fifth? Probably not, given that the Vital Statistics on Congress reports that the House’s lowest reelection rate in the past half-century was 86.6 percent in 1962. But we could see about a tenth of incumbents lose, an unusually high turnover rate, with some losses attributable to redistricting and others to the deteriorating environment for incumbents. While a tenth of all incumbents seeking reelection losing doesn’t sound like a disaster, it is catastrophic for the members (and their staffs) who come up short.
The bigger toll, however, may be the growing reluctance of able men and women to run for Congress. Although the House and Senate will never lack for ambitious people seeking seats, will the caliber match that of the past? How many good people will opt not to seek a seat in an institution that has taken such a battering? Since the mid-’80s, Congress has taken a furious pounding, from within. How will that damage ultimately manifest itself? The answer is not entirely clear, but no doubt it will.
This article appears in the Jan. 21, 2012, edition of National Journal.