Politico: Cooperation would boost voter confidence

March 16, 2012

As exclusively seen in POLITICO

Cooperation boosts voter confidence
By: Douglas E. Schoen and Gretchen Hamel
March 15, 2012 10:13 PM EDT

For editorial writers and political analysts, it’s apparently a job requirement to decry the bitter partisanship in Washington. When it comes to expressions of deep concern about the sorry state of politics, it’s a bull market.

But we’ve been down this road before. Think back to the Clinton administration in the 1990s — hardly an era of political harmony. Those were tumultuous and contentious days, too. Remember impeachment?

Yet somehow, in spite of those rough-and-tumble times, President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans managed to work together on a wide range of issues to get things done for the American people. As Congress and the Obama administration take up what surely will be a contentious spring debate over federal budget priorities, in the middle of an election year, they’d do well to remember lessons of that bygone decade.

For example, tremendous progress was made in the ’90s on free-trade agreements, opening new markets for U.S. goods. Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform package, a GOP priority that became one of his administration’s most laudable achievements. And in 1997, Clinton reached a historic agreement with the Republican Congress, led by Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, that led to a balanced budget and ultimately, budget surpluses — for the only time in recent history.

All these accomplishments stemmed from the willingness of Clinton and Republicans in Congress to find common ground on key priorities. Today’s political leaders, in the White House and on Capitol Hill, would do well to recall that example because right now, the American people are losing confidence in the government and in their elected officials.

Voters view the spectacle in Washington and what do they see? Mounting deficits and debt, partisan gridlock and a governing class that appears increasingly out of touch with the concerns of the public.

Their anxiety is reflected in polling results. Sixty-three percent of Americans believe the nation is “on the wrong track,” according to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll.is in spite of the fact that many economic indicators point to the U.S. economy, while still struggling, is improving.

To find out why Americans are so gloomy, we each conducted extensive polling about voters’ attitudes toward the government. In January, Gretchen Hamel’s organization, Public Notice, surveyed 805 likely voters on a range of issues related to the government’s role in the economy.

The results revealed increasing skepticism about the government’s ability to intervene effectively. Fifty-six percent believe the government hurts the economy. And a full two-thirds (66 percent) believe the economy is extremely or very affected by the federal debt.

Polling that Douglas Schoen conducted in early July including 1,000 likely voters underscores this. By 70 percent to 8 percent, voters say the federal government has too much, rather than too little, power and money.

Indeed, voters do not believe government intervention can improve our economy. A large majority (81 percent) say government is not solving our economic problems, while 14 percent say it is. Survey respondents do not believe we need a second, larger stimulus to get the economy going again, 53 percent to 40 percent.

Despite these negative feelings toward government in Washington, voters would prefer to see greater cooperation there. Hamel’s survey found 59 percent want their representatives and senators to work together to get things done. Meanwhile, less than a third said they’d prefer their members press hard for principles he or she believes in — even if that means some things won’t get done.

There’s a lesson for elected officials here. Rather than digging in and focusing on the most committed partisans, seeking common ground and helping the government work for the people would pay dividends.

Clinton and congressional leaders in the 1990s, in spite of their differences, seemed to understand this dynamic more than today’s leaders.

A 1993 Associated Press story offers a nice snapshot. Clinton, having just survived a bruising fight in Washington, was enjoying a round of golf with one of his White House predecessors, Republican Gerald Ford. “‘It’s the way I’m going to try to run the rest of my administration,’ Clinton said when asked about the bipartisan outing. ‘I don’t ever want the kind of polarization we had the last six months.’”

He didn’t exactly get his wish. He faced frequent challenges from congressional Republicans and Democrats alike. But he still managed to achieve unexpected things in his presidency by finding common ground to work with his adversaries.

Most of all, Clinton understood how reaching out to the opposition, even when you’ve fought repeatedly, is the only way to keep open lines of communication — and to get things done for the American people.

Douglas Schoen is a Democratic pollster and strategist. His most recent book is “Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System.” Gretchen Hamel is the executive director of Public Notice, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.

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