Public to Congress: Bend, Don’t Break

A Capitol Hill police officer stands guard outside during a visit by President Barack Obama to the House Democratic Caucus retreat at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)  
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
July 23, 2012, 5:30 p.m.

Most Amer­ic­ans see con­flict between the parties as the cent­ral reas­on Wash­ing­ton has not pro­duced a more pro­duct­ive re­sponse to the per­sist­ent eco­nom­ic slow­down, but re­main pess­im­ist­ic that the two sides will reach ef­fect­ive agree­ments more of­ten after the Novem­ber elec­tion, ac­cord­ing to the latest United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll.

When it comes to com­prom­ise in Con­gress, it ap­pears that ab­sence has made Amer­ic­ans’ hearts grow fonder: Com­pared with 2010, the sur­vey found a not­able up­tick in the share of Amer­ic­ans who said they prefer polit­ic­al lead­ers who “make com­prom­ises with people they dis­agree with” over those who “stick to their po­s­i­tions without com­prom­ising.”

But the sur­vey found that the pub­lic re­mains du­bi­ous that Con­gress will heed that ad­vice: Only 27 per­cent of those polled said they be­lieved that after the 2012 elec­tion “the two parties will come to­geth­er more than they have in re­cent years to try to solve the most im­port­ant prob­lems fa­cing the na­tion.” A re­sound­ing 63 per­cent in­stead pre­dicted that “the two parties will mostly dis­agree and reach stale­mate on the most im­port­ant prob­lems fa­cing the na­tion, as they of­ten have in re­cent years.”

The United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll, con­duc­ted by Prin­ceton Sur­vey Re­search As­so­ci­ates In­ter­na­tion­al, sur­veyed 1,001 adults by land­line and cell phone on Ju­ly 19-22. It has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.8 per­cent­age points.

The sur­vey found that in a coun­try deeply di­vided on al­most all polit­ic­al ques­tions, Amer­ic­ans across ra­cial, class, and par­tis­an lines over­whelm­ingly agree that this Con­gress has ar­gued more, and ac­com­plished less, than usu­al.

In re­sponse to a long-term trend ques­tion, fully 80 per­cent of those polled said that this year Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats have “been bick­er­ing and op­pos­ing one an­oth­er more than usu­al.” Since that ques­tion has been asked in Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion and Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­veys go­ing back to 1998, only at the height of last sum­mer’s debt-ceil­ing stan­doff has a high­er per­cent­age said that Con­gress was bick­er­ing more than usu­al. Just 8 per­cent of those polled in the new sur­vey said that Con­gress this year has been “work­ing to­geth­er more to solve prob­lems.” Only once be­fore (in Decem­ber 2011) has Con­gress scored lower on that meas­ure.

Like­wise, on an­oth­er long-term trend ques­tion, just 8 per­cent said that “this Con­gress has ac­com­plished more” than usu­al; 40 per­cent said that it has ac­com­plished about the same as usu­al; and 47 per­cent said it has ac­com­plished less. Again, in res­ults dat­ing back to 1998, only in Decem­ber 2011 has a high­er per­cent­age said that Con­gress had ac­com­plished less than usu­al.

The be­lief that this Con­gress has bickered more than usu­al is shared by roughly four-fifths of whites and non­whites; Re­pub­lic­ans, Demo­crats and in­de­pend­ents; whites with and without col­lege edu­ca­tions; and adults at all in­come levels. The con­ver­gence wasn’t quite so pro­found on Con­gress’s per­form­ance, but still just less than half of Demo­crats and in­de­pend­ents, and just more than half of Re­pub­lic­ans, agreed that its per­form­ance has lagged.

Most Amer­ic­ans con­tin­ue to see the par­tis­an stale­mate as a key con­trib­ut­or to the on­go­ing eco­nom­ic dis­tress, ac­cord­ing to the poll. An­oth­er ques­tion noted that “over the past few years, Wash­ing­ton lead­ers have tried to ad­dress the prob­lem of high un­em­ploy­ment, without much suc­cess” and asked re­spond­ents why that is so. About one-sixth re­spon­ded that Wash­ing­ton hadn’t made a great­er dent on the prob­lem mostly be­cause “neither Demo­crats nor Re­pub­lic­ans in Wash­ing­ton have come up with any good ideas to re­duce un­em­ploy­ment so far.” Just un­der one-fourth of re­spond­ents said the prob­lem is that “there is not much Wash­ing­ton lead­ers can do to re­duce un­em­ploy­ment through policy or le­gis­la­tion.” A 52 per­cent ma­jor­ity agreed that “there have been good ideas, but fight­ing between Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans has blocked needed gov­ern­ment ac­tion.”

That sen­ti­ment also drew broad agree­ment, with one big ex­cep­tion. While 65 per­cent of Demo­crats mostly blamed par­tis­an con­flict for the lack of ef­fect­ive ac­tion, 49 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents and just 45 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans agreed; nearly 30 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans said that Wash­ing­ton simply can’t do much to im­prove the em­ploy­ment situ­ation.

These di­vi­sions blurred again on the ques­tion about ex­pect­a­tions of Con­gress’s be­ha­vi­or after the elec­tion. More than three-fifths of both non­whites and whites pre­dicted the dead­lock between the parties would con­tin­ue in­to 2013. So did more than two-thirds of in­de­pend­ents and Demo­crats and nearly three-fifths of Re­pub­lic­ans.

For many Amer­ic­ans, that’s clearly an omin­ous pro­spect. A nar­row 52 per­cent ma­jor­ity of those sur­veyed said they most ad­mire polit­ic­al lead­ers who com­prom­ise “with people they dis­agree with.” That’s a marked in­crease from Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion polls in both Septem­ber and Novem­ber 2010, when only 42 per­cent of those sur­veyed said they most ad­mired polit­ic­al lead­ers who stress com­prom­ise.

In each of those 2010 sur­veys, a plur­al­ity (49 per­cent in Septem­ber and 45 per­cent in Novem­ber) said they most ad­mired lead­ers who stick to their po­s­i­tions without com­prom­ising. But in the new poll, just 38 per­cent said they most ad­mired lead­ers who don’t com­prom­ise.

Rank-and-file Re­pub­lic­ans re­main some­what less likely to fa­vor lead­ers who com­prom­ise than do Demo­crats or in­de­pend­ents. But since the Septem­ber 2010 poll, Re­pub­lic­ans have moved more than the oth­er two groups to­ward priz­ing com­prom­ise. In the new poll, 48 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans said they most ad­mired lead­ers who com­prom­ise (com­pared with 45 per­cent who prefer those who don’t.) That’s a sharp shift from Septem­ber 2010, when just 33 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans said they ad­mired lead­ers who com­prom­ise, and 62 per­cent ad­mired those who did not.

Among Demo­crats, 62 per­cent now say they most ad­mire lead­ers who com­prom­ise (up more mod­estly from 54 per­cent in 2010). Among in­de­pend­ents, 51 per­cent now fa­vor lead­ers who com­prom­ise (up from 40 per­cent in 2010).

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