How to Win When Everyone Loses

In Washington, consolation prizes--pleasing the base, appearing tough and strong, handling negotiations better--are really the only victories in town.

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Evan Vucci / AP

President Barack Obama during the fiscal cliff negotiations in the briefing room of the White House on Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, in Washington.

There are, in theory, a few months every two years when the next election is supposed to matter less. The horse race, as it were, has been run. The chance to govern is at hand. That’s the theory, anyway.

In these days of divided dysfunction, the practice is different, as the new Pew poll about public reaction to the New Year’s fiscal-cliff deal beautifully illustrates. It is, in short, still possible to win when everyone loses.

First the poll asked about the substance of what Congress and the White House accomplished as the rest of the country recovered from their New Year’s hangovers. On this score, the numbers are dismal. Just 38% of the country approves of the deal, compared with 41% who disapprove, and the share of the country who thinks the deal will help people like them, improve the economy or lessen the budget deficit hovers around 1 in 3. These are not the sort of numbers that incumbents of either party like to see.

But in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. So Pew followed up the substantive questions about the deal with horse-race questions about who won the day. On this score, there is a clear winner: Barack Obama, with 57% of the country as a whole, 74% of Republicans, 53% of Democrats and 55% of independents saying he got more of what he wanted in the deal than GOP congressional leaders did.

Asked another way — who handled the negotiations better — Obama wins again, by slightly lower margins, with 48% of the country approving of his approach, vs. 19% of the country approving of the Republican approach to negotiations. Much of this difference can be attributed directly to the way the bases of the respective parties judged their own teams. While 81% of Democrats approved of Obama’s handling of the deal, only 40% of Republicans approved of the congressional GOP’s handling of it.

So Washington failed, and there was still a winner, which just may be the pattern of the coming months. As a new set of cliffs and ceilings approaches, neither side is showing signs of really playing for a win that pleases the country, in part because both fear it is out of reach given the current makeup of Congress. So the consolation prizes — pleasing the base, appearing tough and strong, handling negotiations better — are really the only victories in town. It’s a perfect recipe for more incremental policy mediocrity. So goes Washington. So goes the country.