There has been so much hand-wringing about the debt-limit debate. All of it justified, in my opinion. A few posts ago, I compared it to a “game” of Russian roulette rather than the more common metaphor of a “game” of chicken.
Then I read the New York Times/CBS Poll for August 2 and 3 and it occurred to me that it is always possible that democracy might solve our problem this time. Maybe not. I’m not predicting anything. But I do want to pause briefly to talk about the much-maligned “responsible party model” (RPM).
Here’s the way I talk about it in PS 102. In Step 1, policy-oriented parties recruit candidates who will support those policies and fund their campaigns. If you want a policy-oriented national party, you can’t have yellow dog Democrats running in liberal districts and blue dog Democrats running in conservative districts—and then voting against each other in Congress. In Step 2, the parties run policy-oriented campaigns (rather than personality-oriented ones). The party that wins the majority now has an elected majority capable of fulfilling the party’s promises—more like the situation we expect in parliamentary systems. So in Step 3, the party in power enacts and approves the policies it campaigned on. Then, in Step 4, the crucial step, they return to their constituents with a record to talk about. Maybe even the beginnings of actual achievements based on their legislative stewardship. At that stage, the party says, “We did what we said. How do you like it? If you send us back, we’ll do more of it, so consider your policy desires carefully.”
It isn’t very realistic in modern American politics, but you can see why I like it, right? I like that last stage particularly because it is the only circumstance under which people can evaluate actual policy-generated outcomes and say whether they like them. Evaluating promises and intentions is uncertain work; evaluating outcomes is more the kind of thing it is fair to expect voters to do.
So what about the Times/CBS poll? Here are some results that caught my eye. Obama’s approval rating is at 48%. It hasn’t been above 60% since June 2009 and it hasn’t been about 50% since April 2010 except for a one poll spike in May of this year. That was bin Laden’s execution, I suppose.
People are not happy about the way “things are going in Washington.” Combining the two least approving columns gets you 84%. Combining the two most approving columns gets you 15%.
Since June of last year, the percentage of people who disapprove the way Congress is “handling its job” has been above 70%, but it has moved from 70% in June to 82% in August. Here are some relevant additional figures. Approve of John Boehner? Yes, 30%, No, 57%. The way Republicans in Congress have handled the recent negotiations? Approve 21%, Disapprove 72% Approve Democrats in Congress (same question)? Approve 28%, Disapprove 66%. Do “most members” of Congress deserve to be re-elected? No, 74%
I see anger, frustration, and pain there. The natives are restless.
Who do you trust more to make the right decisions about the nation’s economy? Republicans in Congress, 33%; Barack Obama 47%. Is it better for the parties to compromise or stick to their positions? Compromise, 85%; hold fast, 12%. Who is mostly to blame? Here I’ll give you the current figure and the trend since the last poll. The Bush administration is to blame, 44%, up 3% since April; The Obama administration is to blame, 15% up 1% since April; the Congress is to blame, 15%, up 3% since April.
Who do you blame more of “the difficulties in reaching an agreement” on the debt ceiling? Republicans in Congress, 47%, Barack Obama and the Democrats 29%. Did the Republicans in Congress compromise too little? Yes, 52% (15% said “too much” and 32% said “the right amount.”) Did Barack Obama and the Democrats compromise too much? Yes, 26% (34% said too little and 32% the right amount.) Those percentages are roughly thirds; that’s very good for the Democrats. Are you optimistic about the ability of this Congress to deal with future issues? Yes, 12%, No 66%. Should taxes be increased above the $250,000 level to help balance the budget? Yes, 63%, No 34%.
So that’s how Americans were feeling earlier in the week. What if the RPM kicks in for the general elections in the fall of 2012? People who said they absolutely would not raise taxes run into an electorate two thirds of them disagrees with them and now these “candidates” are incumbents and they are presenting what they have done, not what they promised to do. That doesn’t seem a good prospect for Republicans in Congress who campaigned on holding firm and not compromising and who signed a no tax pledge.
If I were Barack Obama, I would make the campaign about whether you want actual adults in charge of the economy or adolescent zealots. I would NOT make the campaign about whether I had done a good job of managing the economy over my first term, but in trying to avoid that, I would be helped by the 44% who still blame the Bush administration for what is wrong with the economy.
If the voters react in 2012 by rewarding people who promise to compromise and to include more revenue in out “living within our means” issue, then democracy will have done what it is supposed to do. It will have registered the judgments of actual voters on actual outcomes. If the voters felt otherwise—if they felt, for instance, that the economy wasn’t all that bad in 2009 and that Obama should have fixed it by now—then democracy would work exactly the same way and the Democrats would be slaughtered by the new round of votes.
But I don’t think they will be.