A new Congress? The same low expectations | Thursday Morning Coffee

Will divided government yield greater results? Voters aren’t sold, according to a new poll

December 15, 2022 7:12 am

U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. (Getty Images)

There’s a school of political thought that holds that divided government is the government that governs best. Put the White House in the hands of one party, and Congress in the hands of the other, the argument goes, and the two sides inevitably will have to come to the negotiating table to work things out.

Much like New Coke, or electing a faded reality television star president, this is something that initially sounds good in theory, but tends to be utterly unworkable in practice.

Heck, sometimes it doesn’t even work when one party has control of everything.

Look no further than the U.S. Senate where Democrats and the Biden administration essentially were held hostage by the chamber’s Dr. NoU.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and his frequent foil, Sen. Krysten Sinema, of Arizona.

Manchin, who may or may not be a Democrat much longerwielded the chamber’s 60-vote rule like a cudgel, using it to derail legislation he didn’t like. Sinema, who has since announced she’s an independent, was often right there with him.

But with the re-election of U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., the chamber is more or less in solidly Democratic hands. Republicans who hold a tenuous majority in the U.S. House, are getting ready to take over the other side of Capitol Hill.

So if you’re one of those inclined to believe that this kind of divided government will lead to negotiations and something approaching comity, think again.

As a new Monmouth University poll makes clear, most Americans don’t think the House changing hands will make their lives any better. Nor do they think either party will do much to improve their lot economically.

Only 18 percent of the poll’s 805 respondents think that Republican control of the House will change Washington for the better, while 21 percent say it will change for the worse. A majority, 51 percent, don’t see GOP control making much difference either way, pollsters found.

And before you go all ‘But Pelosi … ,’ public perception of Democrats when they assumed control of the House in 2018 was better than it is now, with 28 percent of Americans saying they expected to see a change in the way Washington worked, compared to 16 percent who expected a change for the worse, and 42 percent who said they expected no change at all, according to the poll.

“Some pundits look at these election results and claim that Americans want divided control. I think these frequent leadership changes are more a matter of chronic dissatisfaction with Washington,” Monmouth pollster Patrick Murray said in an email.

Below, some more of the poll’s key findings. Conducted from Dec. 8 to Dec. 12, the poll had a margin of error of 5 percent.

WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 05: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) speak to reporters at the U.S. Capitol building as the House prepares to vote on infrastructure and spending bills, on November 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

Just about a third of the poll’s respondents, 36 percent, think it’s likely that the new Congress will enact policies to help the middle class. That’s way down from the 58 percent who said the same thing when Democrats controlled both sides of Capitol Hill at the start of President Joe Biden’s term in 2021.

There was similar optimism when Republicans controlled Congress during the start of former President Donald Trump’s term in 2017.

In both of those polls, 8 in 10 partisans of the majority party (81 percent of Democrats in 2021 and 82 percent of Republicans in 2017) as well as a majority of independents (56 percent in 2021 and 53 percent in 2017) were optimistic about Congress enacting middle class policies.

Five years, one rough-and-tumble election, an insurrection, and a couple of  brutal midterm cycles later, that opinion stands at 46 percent likely among Republicans, 34 percent among independents, and 33 percent among Democrats, according to the poll.

“Expectations for Washington getting its act together are very low when you ask Americans directly. They’ve seen this show before,” Monmouth’s Murray continued.

President Joe Biden at the Volvo Group USA truck parts manufacturing plant in Hagerstown, Md. on Friday 10/7/22 (Photo by Josh Kurtz/Maryland Matters).
President Joe Biden at the Volvo Group USA truck parts manufacturing plant in Hagerstown, Md. on Friday 10/7/22 (Photo by Josh Kurtz/Maryland Matters).

None of the current crop of congressional leaders comes out looking very good in the new poll.

Retiring U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, is upside down at 29-49 percent for her approval rating, but remains wildly popular among Democrats, 69 percent of whom approve of Pelosi’s job performance.

But before Republicans start crowing, House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, who’s looking to succeed Pelosi at the Speaker’s Rostrum, fared even worse, with an anemic 12 percent approval rating, compared to 34 percent who approve.

And McCarthy, who’s also fighting off an internal insurrection from his own conference, holds a narrow 29-20 percent approval rating among Republicans.

However, most Americans, including just over half of his fellow Republicans, have no opinion of McCarthy’s performance as party leader. Only 1 in 5 Americans have no opinion of Pelosi, according to the poll.

Pelosi may have been a lightning rod for Republicans over the past twenty years, but she has clearly earned the admiration of her fellow Democrats,” Monmouth’s Murray said.

McCarthy starts off as a blank slate for most of the public. It will be interesting to see if he can build the same kind of party loyalty as Pelosi – that is if he actually gets the chance to succeed her,” Murray continued, adding, “McCarthy could end up as unpopular as [Senate GOP Leader MitchMcConnell, but public disdain for the Senate GOP leader is due in part to his ruthlessness in holding onto power. It’s not clear whether McCarthy is made of the same stuff.”

So maybe there’s hope for a New Coke revival after all …

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.