But a curious thing happens at the end of this cycle. After all the hand-wringing over dysfunction and the self-congratulation about turning a corner, just as Republicans believe things are going well for them politically, President Obama somehow rebounds in the polls.
We see it today.
At the close of the purportedly dysfunctional 113th Congress, congressional leaders promised an end to legislative cliffs and high-profile showdowns. Indeed, the emphasis this Congress has been on items like a permanent “doc fix” and fast-track trade authority. In the words of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, this is “a new Congress that’s back to work on behalf of the American people.”
The result? According to Gallup, Obama’s favorability ratings have just hit an 18-month high—53 percent. And it’s not the first time Republicans have watched his numbers get a boost just as they’ve hit what they believed to be a stride.
It doesn’t, of course, tell the whole story of the president’s and the GOP’s relative fortunes. But the contrast between the lift Obama gets during periods of bipartisan cooperation and the slide of his approval numbers when Congress takes a more oppositional posture is striking.
Following Obama’s post-bin Laden bounce in May 2011, his approval rating steadily declined as House Republicans seized on the issue of overspending. That August, following the debt-ceiling showdown, Obama’s approval rating dipped below 40 percent. And during the 2013 Obamacare funding debate, the president’s numbers steadily declined.
The takeaway is that when the action in Washington exposes—and doesn’t smooth over—the fundamental differences between Republicans and Democrats, Obama’s favorability suffers. But when legislators accommodate the White House for the sake of avoiding “dysfunction,” the president benefits.
The impact on congressional Republicans is less obvious. For much of 2011, the party’s favorability hovered in the mid-30s even as it was consistently leading the generic congressional ballot. The reason is fairly straightforward according to Gallup: a president’s standing with voters “is usually a significant predictor of election outcomes.”
And this is where legislative conflict comes into play. As The Post’s Chris Cillizza notes, “in the absence of bad news,” the trend among unaffiliated voters is “to want to give Obama the benefit of the doubt.” As the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin suggests, “For many people, the President of the United States is the government of the United States.”
But even if this thesis—that the public blames the president when it thinks Washington can’t function—accounts, at least in part, for this general trend, conservatives suspect there’s another factor. The political battles in which Obama has fared most poorly have been notable, not merely because they generated perceived dysfunction in Washington, but also because they’ve served to crack the veneer of centrism that President Obama and his party present to the electorate.
So if Republican politicians really want to advance conservative legislation, they have to embrace the reality that the only way to win a debate is to have one.
When Republicans draw meaningful distinctions between their priorities and Democrats’ priorities—like they have with spending, Obamacare and immigration—voters have been forced to confront the ideological differences between the parties and choose between them. When Republicans acquiesce to the president’s agenda—like they’ve done with his nominees, funding unlawful executive actions and insurance industry subsidies—and allow Democrats to present themselves as reasonable governing partners, there’s no contrast for voters to observe.
These two explanations are complementary, of course, not completely distinct. Legislative gridlock doesn’t occur arbitrarily; it’s our political system’s built-in method of addressing debates in which the country is far from consensus. Conservatives win when we expose those fault lines.
And this isn’t a new concept for the GOP. In “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives,” Robert Draper quotes then-chief deputy whip, now-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy as saying, “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.” Exactly right.
Governing does not just mean passing bills. It means showing how those bills fit into a coherent vision for the nation. Conservatives and progressives have different visions and the path to the White House in 2016 requires showing how ours is superior to theirs.
When the opportunity for debate presents itself—as is now the case with the fight over the Democrat-supported corporate-welfare fund known as the Export-Import Bank—approval numbers offer a corrective to any temptation GOP legislators might have to buckle. Debate sometimes leads to gridlock but always provides the opportunity to gain voters’ support. Shying away from it only empowers Obama.