- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 21, 2005

Add a new “gap” to the lexicon of American politics. And like the “gender gap,” will this one shape political debate and dialogue in the years ahead? Call this one the “obstruction gap,” division caused by disagreements over national political strategy and tactics — a gap that, at least for the time being, is only affecting Democrats. No doubt the party’s tactics and tone on the John Roberts Supreme Court nomination will have an impact on the “gap.” And while whether it endures or expands is unclear, it’s certainly not optimal for short-term electoral performance. Here’s some evidence of it.

Political pundits and journalists closely track survey questions about voter approval of American government institutions like the presidency and Congress as a means of gauging their legitimacy and as possible predictors of future election outcomes.

Rarely, however, are these surveys reported from the standpoint of how partisan identifiers evaluate their own party’s performance. Yet in today’s more polarized environment, analyzing congressional approval by party yields some interesting insights about “base” voters — those most committed and likely to vote, contribute money and work in elections — and how these partisans feel about their team’s performance.

As part of the latest American Survey of 800 registered voters conducted June 21-26, we asked Republican identifiers if they approved of the way “Republicans in the House of Representatives were handling their job,” and Democrats what they thought about how “Democrats in the House of Representatives were handling their job.”

When it comes to Congress, Republicans are more satisfied with their team’s performance — an indication that the lack of a positive message may be taking a toll on Democratic Party unity and evidence of the “obstruction gap.”

It’s no surprise that a majority of both parties support their home team — 78 percent of Republicans support the way the GOP is doing its job in the House while 63 percent of Democrats support their squad’s performance. But the lower level of Democratic support — a statistically significant 15 percent — raises the question of why the gap exists. Here’s one possibility.

It’s no secret in Washington that Democrats are divided over strategy and tactics. Some want to do nothing more than oppose Mr. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress — that’s as far as they have to go. For them, winning in politics means only defining what they oppose.

Others believe Democrats have to stand for more than the sum of their resentments. They feel successful opposition requires concrete ideas and alternatives. The lack of a solid platform frustrates these Democrats, and thus produces the “obstruction gap” — a sign that strategy divisions in Washington are projected on, and then impact, Democratic base voters.

The long-term consequences of the “obstruction gap” are difficult to predict. It’s possible these less positive evaluations will not harm Democrats from an electoral standpoint — they may “come home” in the end anyway and support the party. Yet the Democratic dissonance might also cause some of these party members to “stay home” in silent protest.

How Democrats handle the confirmation process for John Roberts will also shape the party’s image in the minds of voters. Whatever the long-term consequences, for the time being it appears that inside-the-Beltway disagreements among Democratic leaders are having a negative impact on their outside-the-Beltway followers.

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