A Plea for Bipartisanship

Douglas Schoen and Jessica Tarlov on what voters really want: tax hikes, spending cuts, and compromise.

This year’s election did not provide a clear mandate for either party. Yes, President Obama won a big victory in the Electoral College. But the popular vote was extremely close, and even as voters opted for a Democratic President and Senate, they also elected a Republican House. As a result, it’s hard to see the election as more than a reflection of the polarization of the last four years—one that offered little in the way of direction about what the American people would like to see done.

But it would be a profound mistake to assume that consensus doesn’t exist in the electorate. In the days after the election, we conducted a survey of 600 randomly selected Americans. The results suggest that the American people are very aware of the gravity of the fiscal situation facing our country, and that there is a broad consensus favoring a set of policies that could bridge the gap between Obama and House Republicans.

According to our poll, both parties are viewed negatively. Fifty-eight percent view the Republicans in Congress unfavorably, 56 percent say the same about the Democrats, and 70 percent believe that we need a new party dedicated to compromise, conciliation, fiscal discipline, and economic growth that draws on the best ideas from both sides.

Moreover, there is huge concern that the political class in Washington has not provided any meaningful approach to addressing our mounting fiscal challenges. Sixty-one percent of the electorate disapproves of how Obama and the Democrats in Congress have handled the issues surrounding the fiscal cliff, and 58 percent gave a similar response about the Republicans. Meanwhile, an extraordinary 88 percent of those surveyed agreed with this statement: “We need a bipartisan agreement to reduce the deficit, where everything is on the table, and both Republicans and Democrats compromise on some positions they feel strongly about.”

On the policy substance, 66 percent of respondents favored a tax increase for upper-income Americans, and 49 percent endorsed a program whereby Congress reduces the federal budget deficit through equal spending cuts and tax increases—both statistics that favor Obama’s position. (In the latter poll, 35 percent favored only spending cuts, and 5 percent favored only tax increases.) At the same time, lest Democrats get carried away, it is important to note that an even greater number of respondents—75 percent—believe the current level of federal spending helps neither individuals nor the economy.

It is our belief that the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson framework can, and should, form the basis for both a short-term and long-term approach to our fiscal challenges. When asked explicitly about the Bowles-Simpson plan, 42 percent were in favor, 21 percent were against, and 37 percent were not sure. The president could do worse than to appoint Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the two chairmen of the Bowles-Simpson commission, to head a special White House initiative to find a compromise before sequestration automatically kicks in—which would result in over a trillion in cuts to the budget on Jan. 1.

Politicians of both parties have to change. Gallup has shown a steady increase in Independent identification with now over 40 percent of the electorate describing themselves as not affiliated with either the Democrats or Republicans. Unless Democratic and Republican leaders put forward initiatives like the ones we are describing, support for the two major parties and their congressional wings will continue to erode.