The most misused and exploited political statistic is, far and away, the low (and rapidly shrinking) approval ratings for Congress. A new Gallup poll released today found "Congress' approval rating the lowest it has been since Gallup first tracked public opinion of Congress with this measure in 1974."
For the past several months, Congress' approval ratings have been as low as, and often lower than, George Bush's unprecedentedly low ratings. Various media pundits and right-wing advocates use this fact constantly to insinuate that Bush is not uniquely unpopular and Americans have not really turned against Republicans, but rather, there is just a generic dissatisfaction with our political institutions, or more misleadingly still, that Americans are actually angry at Congress for not "doing enough" (by which it is meant that they are excessively investigating and obstructing and not "cooperating" enough).
But the reason for these low approval ratings is as clear as it is meaningful -- the overall ratings for Congress are so low because Democrats disapprove of the Democratic Congress almost as much as Republicans do. There is nothing unusual about how Republicans or independents rate the Democratic Congress; the only aspect of any of this that is unusual is that Democrats rate the Congress so low even though it is controlled by their own party. Virtually every poll demonstrates this. From the most recent CBS News poll:
That is just extraordinary. Democrats express disapproval for the Democratic Congress almost to the same extent as Republicans do. Today's Gallup Poll Report noted how unusual this is:
Frustration with Congress spans the political spectrum. There are only minor (but not statistically meaningful) differences in the approval ratings Democrats (21%), Republicans (18%), and independents (17%) give to Congress. Typically, partisans view Congress much more positively when their party is in control of the institution, so the fact that Democrats' ratings are not materially better than Republicans' is notable.
In fact, when it comes to analyzing the amazingly low ratings for Congress, this is the only aspect that is actually notable. The Democratic Congress commands such little approval for one reason only -- because its own party is so disappointed with its performance.
By comparison, look at the party breakdown for Bush's approval ratings and how overwhelmingly Republicans continue to approve of the President. From the same CBS poll:
That is the typical state of affairs. If Democrats approved of their Congress even close to the rate that Republicans approve of Bush, then Congress' approval ratings would be at a fairly average level, even high. But not only is Congress' unpopularity due primarily to Democratic anger, the recent drops in Congressional popularity are due almost exclusively to growing Democratic and independent (but not Republican) frustration with the Congress:
The nine-point drop in Congress' job approval rating from last month to this month has come exclusively from Democrats and independents, with Democrats' ratings dropping 11 points (from 32% to 21%) and independents' ratings dropping 13 points (from 30% to 17%). Republicans' 18% approval rating is unchanged from last month.
Since Democrats took over Congress in January, there have been three major attributes characterizing their conduct: (1) a failure to stop or restrict the war in Iraq; (2) a general failure/unwillingness to stop Bush on much of anything else of significance (FISA, a failure to reverse any of the excesses of the GOP Congress, such as the Military Commissions Act, lack of limits on his ability to attack Iran, etc.); and (3) numerous investigations, sometimes flashly but thus far inconsequential. There is no rational way to argue that the numerous investigations (item (3)) are responsible for Congressional unpopularity given how overwhelmingly Americans want Congressional investigations of the administration.
Thus, the only rational conclusion is that Congress is so unpopular, particularly among Democrats, because of their ongoing capitulations to the Bush administration, their failure to place any limits on his Iraq policy, and their general inability/refusal to serve as a meaningful check on the administration. Democrats and independents overwhelmingly dislike the President. Thus, the weaker Congress is in defying the President, the more unpopular Congress becomes.
Contrary to the general impression created by the media when discussing this polling data, Congress' extremely low standing does not undermine or dilute the intense unpopularity of Bush and his party among Americans. To the contrary, it bolsters it and arises from it.
Americans still trust the Democratic Congress far more than the President on "the major issues facing the country." Congress is so deeply unpopular not because they are investigating or obstructing too much, but because they are investigating and obstructing far too little. Every time "Blue Dog" Democrats and Democratic consultants and mindless, conventional-wisdom-spouting TNR types successfully argue that, especially on national security and war issues, Democrats need to capitulate to Bush lest they be politically harmed, they make Democrats look weaker, more like losers, and more impotent (the opposite of the "strength" they think they are projecting) and dig this political hole further and further.
With a President and a Republican Party this deeply unpopular, the only thing the Democrats could really do to harm themselves is to minimize the distinctions between them and Bush, and fail to take a strong stand against the administration. With very rare exception, that is exactly what they have been doing, and that is why they are held in such low esteem. That, of course, has been the predominant critique of Beltway Democratic insiders for quite some time, but this polling data proves this view rather conclusively.
UPDATE: KagroX notes a new report from U.S. News & World Report suggesting that, come September, more and more Democrats will be unwilling to oppose the Surge and the war. It has long been conventional Beltway wisdom that September was going to be the Month of Reckoning -- when Republicans finally had enough and boldly joined with Democrats in ending the war, or at least in imposing meaningful limits on Bush's power to prosecute it.
In reality, the probability that this would actually happen was always, is now, and will continue to be zero. As Kagro insinuates, it is far more likely that more Democrats will be converted from an anti-war to a pro-war posture by "The-Surge-is-Working!"/Petraeus campaign than Republicans will be converted to meaningful anti-war action. That was always the case and it is even more true now. Most Republicans and more than enough Democrats will oppose any actions to end the war. The war will continue, the gap between American public opinion and our government will grow, and the weak and divided Democrats will continue to be more unpopular.
UPDATE II: More actual evidence of what Americans think, as opposed to the wishful-thinking-assertions of Bush followers, can be found here.