Many politicians inevitably invoke the nation's future economic health when staking out positions in the debt ceiling debate, but many doubtless have their own political futures in mind. But with public disgust with Washington rampant, many voters could end up judging politicians not only by what is ultimately decided but also how it is decided.
"I do think this is a potentially huge factor in next year's elections," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that covers election campaigns. In his opinion, voters will take into account both substance and style when evaluating their elected officials. "If the president appears to put Social Security and Medicare on the table, that will drive his liberal base bananas. If the Republicans appear at the end of the day to accept a deal that includes additional taxes, ...I think the Tea Party people will go ballistic," he says, but adds that stubbornness or apathy could also make for unhappy voters. "If at the end of the day, the Republicans are defined as the party that is extreme, intransigent, uncooperative, uncompromising, then Republicans will suffer. If at the end of the day, Democrats look as if they don't really care that much about spending ... then Democrats are going to be hurt." says Rothenberg.
Indeed, polls suggest that Americans from across the political spectrum want compromise, albeit in measures that vary widely by party identification. A poll released today by the Pew Research Center shows that 68 percent of respondents want lawmakers who share their views to compromise, even if it means striking a deal with which they disagree. The results are heavily split along party lines, but majorities of all parties favor compromise, including 81 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of independents, and 53 percent of Republicans.
The potential impact of the fight on voter perceptions has not escaped the notice of Washington's political machinery. Today, Crossroads GPS, a conservative third-party expenditure group cofounded by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, announced a $560,000 ad buy targeting five Democratic senators on spending. The group has pledge to spend a total of $20 million this summer. Likewise, liberal PAC Moveon.org has produced a series of ads that accuse Republican House members of holding the debt ceiling hostage for political gain.
According to Robert Gleason, Jr., chairman of the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania, some voters perceive Democratic incumbents as ignoring their opinions. In Gleason's opinion, by following the president's lead and not listening adequately to their constituents, those officials pay the price in public opinion. "We know who Obama is, and we know who our senators are, we know who [Pennsylvania Democratic Sen.] Bob Casey [is], who has to run next year. And he has supported the president 90 percent of the time, and I think everybody knows that both of their numbers are miserable. And for two men who are running for reelection, they have to be very worried about Pennsylvania," says Gleason. Earlier this month, a Public Policy Polling poll showed the president's approval rating in the Keystone State to be at 46 percent. This stands in contrast to the 2008 presidential election, when Obama won the state by a 10 percent margin.
Meanwhile, Jim Burn, chairman of Pennsylvania's Democratic State Committee, believes that voters will look not to how politicians interact with the electorate but rather with each other. "What we see from the Democratic leadership in Pennsylvania is willingness to work in a bipartisan fashion," says Burn, adding that he believes that those Democrats will be rewarded for doing "what's in everybody's best interest, not the best interest of a select few." Likewise, Sue Dvorsky, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, says that voters care just as much about the negotiation process as the outcome, and are capable of mentally separating the two issues. "I think those are two different things. I am confident we will get an increase in the debt ceiling. I am confident in that. How this plays out, the kind of rhetoric people are using ... I do think that people are listening to that." She cites Iowa Republican Representatives Steve King and Tom Latham as examples of Republican "intransigence" on the debt ceiling issue. King said via Twitter this week that the president could be impeached if the nation defaults.
The debate will no doubt affect voters next year in swing states like Pennsylvania and Iowa, as well as Florida and Ohio. But Rothenberg adds that voters will ultimately focus their attention not on fiscal crises but economic woes. "[The debt ceiling debate] is important, because it defines the public's view of the parties. But it's also going to be important next October where jobs are and the economy," says Rothenberg. In short, the unemployment rate, and not the country's borrowing limit, is the number with far greater influence on the outcome of the 2012 elections.