The Washington Post

Why the Democrats could bear the blame for the debt limit fight

The debt limit debate is showing few signs of coming to a peaceful conclusion, and many (including The Fix boss) are suggesting both sides could pay a price at the ballot box next year in what could turn out to be a “throw the bums out” election, if you will.

But if history tells us anything, it’s that there’s only enough anger for people to throw out the bums of one party. And if President Obama wants that party to be the Republicans, he’s going to have to beat history.

In fact, there are very few instances of any kind of throw-the-bums-out election. Going back to 1968, there is only one year in which at least 10 House incumbents of both parties lost reelection, either in the primary or general election.

And even that year isn’t a great example of bipartisan anger, as many — if not most — of those members lost because it was the first election after the drawing of new congressional districts.

And while it may be true that anger at Congress right now is at historically high levels (and economic hardship can lead voters to do just about anything), there is little reason to believe that both parties would pay a big price. What usually happens is actually quite simple: the president’s party gets the lion’s share of the blame.

First, though, we need to evaluate whether the coming election year is all that extraordinary.

While Congress as a whole is as unpopular as ever – 80 percent of respondents were either angry or disapproving of Congress in a new Washington Post/ABC News poll – we aren’t exactly in uncharted waters.

Congress was equally as unpopular in the early 1990s, before voters delivered a serious rebuke to just one party: the Democrats.

And taken individually, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are much more unpopular than either party has been in recent years.

A CNN/Opinion Research poll last week found that 41 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the Republican Party, while 55 percent held an unfavorable view. Those numbers actually track pretty closely to where the GOP has been over the last three elections, which included two years in which Republicans lost big (2006) and one in which it won overwhelmingly (2010).

Similarly, Democrats’ numbers are only a few points worse than they were in 2006 and 2008, when the party won a total of 54 seats.

Of course, the argument could still be made that we are in extraordinary political times, and that the current disgust with Congress is somehow different (or will be different after the current debate) than it has been in modern American politics.

But that same argument was made by some political experts in 2006, 2008 and 2010. And all of those election cycles wound up giving one party a significant edge. In all three of those election years, and for many years before that, the president’s party is the one that suffered the biggest losses.

So, if people continue to be unhappy with the state of politics in America, at least historically, the Democrats are likely to bear that blame.

That’s why we’re seeing a concerted effort by the White House to pin the blame on House Republicans, who they say cannot be reasoned with. And it’s also why Republicans may feel emboldened to hold out as long as they can.

There is, however, some polling data that suggest people blame Republicans more than Democrats right now. The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed 42 percent would blame the GOP for a default, while 36 percent would blame Obama. Quinnipiac University put those numbers at 48 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

There also has been an exception to the political trends. Analyst Stu Rothenberg points to the 1948 election, in which Democratic President Harry Truman successfully shifted blame to the Republican-held Congress.

But shifting the blame is generally a difficult proposition and has rarely been done successfully. Rothenberg points out that it could be easier – though still not simple – if Republicans controlled all of Congress. As it stands, though, they control only the lower chamber.

“It would be up to Obama to shift the blame to Congress – but not just Congress – to House Republicans next year,” Rothenberg said. “I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it would be difficult. Very difficult.”

In the end, the bums generally belong to one party or another, and Democrats are still the party that most people see as controlling Washington.

If Obama can successfully shift blame to the Republicans, or at least force them to sustain losses along with Democrats, it would be a significant and historical political win.


Afternoon Fix: Obama to address the nation at 9 p.m.

Among House Republican freshmen, debt-ceiling uncertainty reigns

Resetting the political stakes of the debt ceiling debate

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.


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