Between Conventions: Partisanship and Approval

Between Conventions: Partisanship and Approval

During this highly charged political season, it is nearly impossible not to be drawn into conversations with strong partisan overtones. Even among Republicans and among Democrats, even when talking about their own parties and candidates, strong partisan rivalries emerge. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the long-delayed endorsement of Hillary Clinton by Bernie Sanders and the refusal to endorse Donald Trump by former rivals like John Kasich, Jeb Bush and, most dramatically, Ted Cruz.

How, as a nation, and as candidates, will this work for us?

I’d like to turn our attention away from the top of the ticket for a moment. Because elsewhere, there’s some interesting evidence about how we Americans view our leaders in their more and less partisan modes.

We all know that Congress’s approval percentage is somewhere just north of that of sour milk. The adage is so familiar, the jokes so old, that it’s hard to get a rise from an audience with the latest poll results.

However, in the last forty years there has been one brief, shining period of public approval in Congress’s otherwise dismal descent into the depths of public disapprobation.

First, the bad news.

From August 1974 to August 1997, roughly 60 national Gallup polls asked samples of the American public whether they generally approved or disapproved of the job Congress was doing. Of those polls, only two, one conducted in August of 1974, one in April of 1986, reported more favorable than unfavorable evaluations of Congress. That’s roughly 3 percent of the time . . . abysmal.

From August 2003 until now, a period of 13 years in which well over 100 additional samples were asked the Congressional approval question, Congress has won more approval than disapproval exactly one time. Horrific.

But something very interesting happened toward the end of Bill Clinton’s second term that carried through the early years of George W. Bush’s first term.

Beginning in early 1998, the American public began to look more favorably upon Congress. Roughly half of Gallup’s surveys that year showed a plurality or majority of Americans having a favorable attitude about Congress. Then, in 1999, Congress slipped back into consistently negative territory

In 2000, beginning with August, Congress hit its stride. For nearly three years, first with a Democratic President (Clinton), then with a Republican President (Bush), Congress received more favorable than unfavorable assessments in every poll but one (ironically, the one completed on the eve of September 11, 2001).

What was true of this time period? Many things, of course, and all I can do is speculate. There’s no controlled experiment we can run on the factors influencing approval of Congress. But there is something else rather historic that took place during the period of Congress’s greatest approval that may be worth noting.

When the 107th Congress was sworn in in early 2001, the partisan split in the two chambers was more nearly equal than it had been at any time since Eisenhower was president. The Senate was evenly split (50 Republicans, 50 Democrats) and the Republican majority margin in the House was just seven members.

Neither party could rule either chamber with impunity. Even organizing the chambers became an exercise in something that seems rare in Washington these days: bipartisan diplomacy.

And public approval soared . . . at least in comparison to the norm for Congress.

There’s a fairly simpleminded way of looking at this.

When a legislature is determinedly partisan in its affairs, committed partisans of the party in the majority may love what they see. But committed partisans do not a majority of Americans make (not for either party, at least not since the mid-1960s). Everyone else is unlikely to be impressed.

When a legislature operates in ways that seem bi-partisan, depending on the work they accomplish (and issues like scandal), there is at least the potential that lots of folks will love it.

The newspaper industry learned this lesson in the mid-to-late 1800s. They shifted from expressly partisan operations to officially independent voices, challenging leaders on the left and the right. This neutrality (at least in brand and much news coverage) expanded their audiences because more potential readers could approve of what they read.

Want to improve your approval rating? Try constructive disagreement, not exaggerated criticism. And try listening to divergent voices, working to find common ground, rather than condemnation and reversion to the party line.

Both party’s headliners might wish to take note . . . and the rest of us, too.

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