Analysis: Angry over debt debate, voters may punish leaders

WASHINGTON Mon Aug 1, 2011 7:47pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Throw the bums out!

That phrase, which captured the anti-incumbent mood among voters in 2010, may apply to next year's elections, too, after the debt debate in Washington enraged the American public and demonstrated an unprecedented level of dysfunction among Democratic and Republican politicians alike.

After weeks of drawn-out talks, refusals to compromise, and partisan attacks, the two sides agreed a deal on Sunday that would lift the U.S. debt ceiling and cut the deficit over 10 years.

But deal or no deal, the damage to the those who led the messy process has been done.

"The big loser after this exercise is Washington," said Republican strategist Scott Reed, who noted that in the last three elections more than 100 members of the 435-member House of Representatives have lost their jobs.

"That could be a precursor for what this next election would look like," he said. "It has the potential to be an anti-incumbent feeling in both parties."

Americans across the country grew increasingly concerned -- and increasingly angry -- in recent days about the antics over the debt ceiling, which brought the country to the edge of default and could have plunged it back into recession.

Leaders from both sides were scrambling in the aftermath of the debt deal to take credit and place blame, and both sides seemed aware that they have lost credibility in the process.

"Nobody's a winner when it comes to ... dysfunctionality and chaos in Washington," said David Axelrod, the top strategist for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, who spoke in his Chicago offices on Friday before the deal.

"Even though I believe strongly the president's been a force to try and bring some sense and reasonableness to this process, the process itself is an ugly, ugly thing, and so just by dint of being associated with it, you know, you get tainted to some degree."

A Washington Post-Pew Research Center Poll released on Monday showed Americans viewed the budget battle in strikingly negative terms, with the word "ridiculous" used by the most respondents to describe it.

Variations of the words "disgusting" and "stupid" came in second and third as descriptions from poll participants.

LOSERS AND LOSERS

The U.S. Treasury said it would be unable to borrow more money to pay its bills after August 2 if the debt ceiling were not raised.

Analysts said the fallout from the process of addressing that deadline could reshape the makeup of Congress.

"This whole situation has only led to a deterioration in Americans' perception of politicians in general and Congress specifically," said Costas Panagopoulos, political science professor at Fordham University.

"There was a strong anti-politician, anti-incumbent sentiment that we observed in 2010, and that may also manifest itself in 2012 and in subsequent elections."

It's difficult to say which side would lose the most.

Tea Party conservatives helped give Republicans control of the House after the 2010 election, largely on the platform of reducing U.S. spending. But many Americans were put off by that group's general refusal to compromise.

"They'll both suffer from it, but I think the Republicans (with) their starting position (of) 'we're not going to compromise' ... they'll come out worse for the wear," said one 61-year-old voter from Virginia named Stuart, who declined to give his last name.

"I'm fed up, I think America's fed up. The world is fed up," he said while walking outside the White House on Sunday.

Republican strategist Reed said congressional leaders from his party would have plenty of time to regroup from any damage it would suffer from the process, while Obama and Democrats would suffer from the president's economic stewardship.

"Obama's the biggest loser here because he failed to lead," Reed said.

Democratic strategist Axelrod said both parties would suffer in the short term, but in the long term, the difference in philosophies -- and Obama's greater willingness to compromise in the debt debate -- would help his party.

"In the long term I think this has been a kind of definitional battle," Axelrod said. "I think that much of this country hungers for constructive compromise that'll move the country forward."

(Editing by Christopher Wilson)

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