In the 1940s and ‘50s, according to a thick tome called The American Congress: The Building of Democracy, lawmakers from both sides of the political divide would come together in a ground-floor room in the Capitol informally named the Board of Education. The room was “a place where senators and representatives could meet and do the hard business of a legislature: discuss, deal, compromise, and finally agree to act on the nation’s problems.” It was supposed to be a friendly environment, marked by one overriding purpose – the best interests of the United States. But in the late ‘50s, for reasons academics don’t entirely agree on, that all changed. Congresspersons began to follow the party line, and an era of partisanship dawned on Capitol Hill.
That era, of course, never really ended. And while acceptable bipartisan compromise was possible – and did often happen – through the Reagan, Bush senior, Clinton, and Dubya years, nobody has had it as tough as Obama in getting the two sides of the aisle to agree. As the brinkmanship surrounding the debt-ceiling debate demonstrated, all reason seems to have seeped out of America’s lawmaking institution. It’s about one thing and one thing only: political advantage.
So it’s kind of comforting for the rest of the world (another fact that the debt-ceiling debate demonstrated is how much US uber-partisanship can affect non-Americans) that disapproval of Congress has just hit a record high. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows that 82 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job, “the most since The Times first began asking the question in 1977, and even more than after another political stalemate led to a shutdown of the federal government in 1995.”
Encouragingly, four out of five people surveyed said the debt-ceiling showdown was more about political standing than doing what was best for the country, and three out of four people said that the debate had harmed the image of the United States in the world. Equally satisfying (Daily Maverick has never pretended objectivity on this score), Republicans in Congress are taking most of the blame – the majority of those surveyed said that Republicans compromised too little during negotiations, and 72 percent disapproved of the way they handled negotiations generally.
Most important, though, is how the narrowly avoided crisis appears to have hurt the Tea Party. Noted The Times: “The public’s opinion of the Tea Party movement has soured in the wake of the debt-ceiling debate. The Tea Party is now viewed unfavorably by 40 percent of the public and favorably by just 20 percent, according to the poll. In mid-April 29 percent of those polled viewed the movement unfavorably, while 26 percent viewed it favorably. And 43 percent of Americans now think the Tea Party has too much influence on the Republican Party, up from 27 percent in mid-April.”
Could this then be the beginning of the end of the Tea Party? Although it’s tempting to make the assumption, caution is needed. In a CNN poll conducted in March 2011, 47 percent of Americans said they saw the Tea Party in an unfavourable light, while only 32 percent regarded the movement favourably. A Washington Post poll from the month showed similar results. But it didn’t matter much to the Tea Partyers what the public thought of them – they came along a few months later and held President Obama and the American public to ransom anyway.
What does seem to matter, though, is what the Republican Party itself thinks of its super-conservative elements. With presidential elections looming, the party is becoming increasingly aware of its image in the eyes of voters. As Clarence Page observed in the Chicago Tribune: “Even fellow conservatives are beginning to speak out against the frightening radical ax Tea Party folks want to swing at government spending. ‘Don’t call them conservatives,’ fumed conservative Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Ronald Reagan White and for Colin Powell, in a blog post. ‘Call them Banana Republicans if you like — or Republicans-Gone-Bananas.’”
The president, meanwhile, appears to have emerged from the crisis less damaged than his opponents. Obama’s overall job approval remained stable in the New York Times/CBS News poll, with 48 percent approving of the way he’s doing his job and 47 percent disapproving. Against this, House Speaker John Boehner dropped 16 points on the April survey, with 57 percent disapproving of his handling of his role and only 30 percent approving.
In summary, the Republicans have won the battle but have damaged themselves in the war. Americans, if the stats are to be believed, trust Obama more than the Republicans to make the right choices for their economy. Looking ahead to 2012, that could be all the president needs to secure a second term. DM
Photo: The U.S. Capitol dome in Washington, August 2, 2011. The United States is poised to step back from the brink of economic disaster on Tuesday when a bitterly fought deal to cut the budget deficit is expected to clear its final hurdles in the U.S. Senate. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.
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The Hindenburg had a smoking room.