Budget negotiators, beware. What Americans want in the ongoing talks is common-sense compromise, not posturing or allowing personal pique to shape important decisions.
That's the word from Democratic and Republican strategists who have advised key leaders during such negotiations in the past.
If President Barack Obama, majority Democrats in the Senate, or majority Republicans in the House come across as blindly intransigent or willing to put partisanship ahead of the national interest, that side would suffer the most in the public's assessment, says a prominent Democratic adviser who counsels many congressional Democrats. This is particularly dangerous for Republicans, he says, because "the Republican brand is so far into the dumper" as a result of the GOP's recent efforts to block Obama's agenda.
For his part, a key Republican strategist argues voters will be tolerant of legislators who appear to be acting out of principle even if those legislators show reluctance to compromise. But if the legislators seem motivated by petulance or pettiness, they will suffer in the next election, he says.
This is what happened to House Republicans when they were locked in a budget impasse with President Bill Clinton 17 years ago under similar circumstances. Voters turned against the GOP when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich threatened to shut down the government because Clinton ignored him during a trip on Air Force One and because Clinton aides made Gingrich exit the plane through the rear door rather than the front door. A GOP strategist who advised House Republicans then and now said this incident made GOP leaders seem like teenagers arguing over the pecking order in high school rather than debating what was in the national interest. A New York Daily News article at the time carried a drawing of Gingrich in a diaper under the headline "Cry Baby. Newt's Tantrum." It was widely reproduced and was devastating to the image not only of Gingrich but of congressional Republicans in general.
Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are trying to work out a budget deal that will avoid the fiscal cliff — automatic spending cuts and tax hikes that will go into effect on January 1 if nothing is done to change current law. The question now is how much they and their allies can resist political posturing and how much they will reach out to each other as the talks intensify.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.