Whom will the public blame for debtageddon?

at 03:36 PM ET, 07/29/2011

(Andrew Harrer - Bloomberg)
One week ago, Speaker John Boehner announced that he had “decided to end discussions with the White House and begin conversations with the leaders of the Senate in an effort to find a path forward.” At the time, it seemed like an insult to the White House. Now it seems like he was doing President Obama a favor.

In a 2010 paper presented at the American Political Science Association’s annual conference, Asger Lau Andersen, David Dreyer Lassen and Lasse Holbøll Westh Nielsen tried to take a systematic look at how voters respond to fiscal gridlock. Though it’s conventional wisdom that the 1995 shutdown helped Bill Clinton, the paucity of data points on the national level makes any sort of rigorous analysis difficult. But this sort of budgetary dysfunction happens all the time on the state level. Between 1988 and 2007, 167 state budgets were late, which is a pretty good signal that the political system charged with producing them fell into gridlock. “That amounts to 23 percent of the budgets for which we have data,” the authors note. Nice job, state legislatures.

On some level, the results were predictable: Voters don’t like budgetary breakdowns. More interesting was how voters apportion blame. “While governors are punished only when part of a unified government, legislatures are (almost) always punished.”

This suggests that when one party controls the government, voters blame them for budgetary breakdowns. But when the two parties split control, the executive is able to float above the squabbling in the legislature, or at least heavily influence the way the public assigns fault. “Governors may be more adept at the blame game that sometimes follows failures to finish a budget on time,” the authors speculate.

Thus far, this debate isn’t helping anybody. Obama’s approval rating hit 40 percent in the most recent Gallup poll — a new low for him. But it’s devastating the GOP. As you can see in the Pew chart to the right, confidence in the Republican leaders has fallen by more than 10 percentage points since February. They’re now well below the Democrats.

That’s good news for House Democrats, in particular. But it’s also evidence that Obama’s strategy of trying to personally manage the negotiations hasn’t improved his numbers. Which is why it’s probably helping him that Boehner decided to move the negotiations over to Congress and assume more of the blame himself. When Boehner’s bill failed last night, it failed in the House of Representatives and damaged Boehner. And then Obama took to the podium this morning to emphasize that this was a Republican failure. This is the sort of dynamic that lends itself to the results described in the paper.

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