We’re bringing back one of our favorite features from years gone by: “The Most Important Number in Politics.” Once or maybe even a few times a week we’ll highlight a number that tells us something important about the political landscape.


That’s the approval rating for Congress in the latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation national poll. It’s the lowest approval rating ever for Congress in a CNN poll and one of only three times that approval has dipped below 20 percent.

(The other two times? March 1992 when approval stood at 18 percent and June 1979 when it was at 19 percent).

The “people hate Congress” story isn’t new — in fact it feels like it’s always been with us — but the depth of the unpopularity has taken on a different cast, according to two top strategists who have spent a lifetime studying political trends.

“Throw out the old play book,” said Tom Davis, a former Virginia House member and two-time chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Davis added that the “political establishment has delivered two failed wars, Katrina, an economic meltdown and stagnant wages,” and that “unless the economy improves the political system will go through shock therapy.”

Martin Frost, a former Texas Member and past chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, agreed with Davis that what is happening in terms of congressional unpopularity was historically anomalous and could lead to unprecedented results at the ballot box next November.

“This the first time in my political lifetime that significant numbers of incumbents in both parties could lose,” said Frost. “The GOP could win the Senate and lose the House.”

(There has rarely — if ever — been a time in modern political memory where a “throw the bums out” attitude impacted both parties equally.)

One Republican strategist put it even more bluntly: “The best place for a politician to be in 2012 is not on the ballot.”

Obviously, context matters here. While Congress hasn’t been particularly popular for quite some time — approval for the chamber hasn’t risen above 35 percent since October 2006 in CNN data — the latest drop is attributable to the protracted and partisan fight over raising the debt ceiling.

With that fight behind us and Washington empty of politicians for the next month, it’s likely that Congress’ numbers will rebound somewhat.

But, don’t be lulled into thinking that we are witnessing the same old political narrative — Congress isn’t well regarded — playing out again.

There are smart strategists in both parties who see the current unpopularity of Congress as indicative of a broader and deeper distaste and disconnect with the way things are done in Washington than at any time in modern political history.

If (and that’s a big “if”) that mood holds through November 2012, we could be looking at a political cataclysm of epic proportions.

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