August 15, 1997

When Washington Works, Incumbents Prosper

Other Important Findings and Analyses

But Still, Show Me

Despite positive feelings about the legislation, Americans continue to doubt that the budget will actually be balanced by the year 2002. Only 16% think the budget will be balanced, 77% think it will not be — down slightly from 85% in May. Assuming the budget is balanced, the public is divided as to what effect this will have on them personally: 43% say a balanced budget is likely to help them and their family financially, 44% say it will not have much impact on them. Very few (8%) believe a balanced budget will hurt them.

The public is slightly less optimistic about their own prospects when asked more specifically about the effect of the recent budget agreement.1 About one third (30%) believe the current budget legislation will help them and their families, more than half (54%) say it will not have much impact on them. Men more than women anticipate positive effects from the budget legislation (35% vs. 26% say they will be helped). Other groups expressing greater optimism include middle aged Americans and college graduates.

When asked in what ways the budget agreement will help them and their families, most respondents referred either generally or specifically to the tax cuts included in the legislation. Other reasons given were that people will have more money, that a balanced budget is good for future generations, and that the legislation will further strengthen the economy.

The public is fairly well aware of the specific provisions of the budget and tax bills, though certain aspects of the legislation are better known than others. As many as 69% have heard about the $500 per child tax credit heralded by the leaders of both parties in the aftermath of the bill’s passage. Nearly as many (65%) were familiar with the tax credits and incentives for higher education. Large majorities have heard of two key changes to the Medicare system — limiting payments to hospitals, doctors and other health care providers (64%) and offering new insurance options such as HMOs to the elderly (62%).

About half of the poll’s respondents had heard of some of the other major provisions in the budget legislation: 53% knew about a new program to finance health care for uninsured children, 50% knew of the restoration of some welfare benefits to legal immigrants, and 47% knew about capital gains tax cuts. Fewer knew about changes in estate taxes (45%) and new rules for IRAs (43%).

Provisional Reaction

Those who have heard about these provisions express overwhelming approval for most of them. The major exceptions are the restoration of benefits to legal immigrants and certain proposed Medicare changes. The public disapproves of the immigrant benefits provision by a margin of 56% to 39%. On balance the public approves of the Medicare changes, but there is significant opposition to the reduction in payments to health care providers (37% disapprove). Seniors are more resistant to this idea than are those of middle age. One in five Americans disapprove of expanding insurance options for Medicare recipients beyond the traditional fee-for-service approach. Again, seniors are more resistant to the change, 41% disapprove.

With the balanced budget agreement enacted, Americans would like Congress and the President to turn to education reform and Social Security. When asked to choose from six pressing national issues, the public showed a very limited appetite for campaign finance reform. A mere 2% of respondents chose that as the issue the nation’s leaders should address next. Nearly one third (30%) say the focus should now shift to improving the educational system. A similar proportion (29%) would opt for improving the long term stability of the Social Security system. Eighteen percent say reducing poverty and homelessness should be the next priority, and 12% say Medicare reform. Less than 5% think improving race relations should be the major focus, in spite of Clinton’s effort to launch a national dialogue on the issue. While there is a surprising degree of partisan agreement on the legislative agenda, there are significant generational differences. Those under 50 would place education at the top of the agenda, their older counterparts, particularly those age 50-64, place much more value on entitlement reform.

Bipartisanship Noticed

In recent months significant numbers of Americans have become aware of bipartisan cooperation in Washington. The percentage thinking that the parties are working together is now 43%, compared to 34% in June and only 21% in October 1995, during the days leading up to the government shutdown.

Americans are also more likely to approve of divided government now than they have been in the past. Almost twice as many people say it is better to have one party control the White House and the other Congress than say one party should control both. In May 1992, the public was evenly divided between these attitudes. At both times, however, a plurality said it did not matter one way or the other.

Interest in Third Party Slips

For the first time in the nineties, less than half of the public agrees that the country should have a third major party. Young people are particularly changed in this regard. Last summer, 70% of those under age 30 wanted a new party; that number has dropped by 17% points. Americans without a high school diploma are also significantly more content with the two party system. In July 1996, half (51%) wanted a third party, now only 31% do.

There are still sharp generational distinctions in the desire for a third party, however. Fully 55% of those under age 50 support the idea of a new party, compared to only 34% of those over age 50.

Party Ratings Fall

Contentment with the way things have been working in Washington has not improved public assessments of the parties. The Democrats’ favorability rating has fallen to a 52% to 42% margin from a 61% to 33% margin in June. The Republican party’s rating also fell, though somewhat less dramatically: 47% to 47% now compared with 51% to 42% in June. The drop in Democratic favorability has occurred among both Independents and Republicans, though not among Democrats themselves. Independents account for much of the Republicans’ loss in favorability.

Overall, the image of the two parties is mostly unchanged. The Democrats remain identified as the party of the people, and the Republicans are chosen more often as better able to manage the federal government. The GOP margin has slipped somewhat since July 1996 on the latter measure (from a 13% advantage over the Democrats to a 6% advantage). The GOP also maintains an edge as the party more often described as well organized (39% vs. 30% for the Democrats), this despite the recently publicized divisions among Republican House members, to which few Americans paid very close attention (13%).

Perhaps the most crucial difference in perception is on the measure of which party can bring about change. The Democrats had the advantage here in the summer before Clinton’s reelection, while the Republicans held an edge after their takeover of Congress. In the current poll, however, the parties pull even. Much of the Democrats’ loss occurs among Independents: 49% said the Democrats could bring about needed changes in 1996, only 35% say so now.

While the Democrats are under heavier fire in the campaign finance hearings, the public has less confidence in both parties’ capacity to govern in an honest and ethical way. The number of Americans saying neither party is capable of ethical governance has increased from 18% in July 1996 to 26% now. The poll found that Independents have lost confidence in both parties. Democrats are about as likely as a year ago to think their party is more ethical. However, significantly fewer Republicans are willing to choose their party as capable of honest governance.

The News Interest Index

The slaying of designer Gianni Versace in Miami and the Pathfinder spacecraft’s exploration on Mars were the most closely followed news stories of the last month. Americans’ interest in news from Washington continues to fall, meanwhile, despite passage of the balanced budget legislation and the start of campaign finance hearings in the Senate.

More than one in five Americans (24%) followed Versace’s death and the search for suspect Andrew Cunanan very closely, and another 33% fairly closely. Similarly, 22% followed news about the exploration of Mars very closely, and 36% fairly closely. Among these top stories, women paid the closest attention to the Versace slaying (29% following very closely, compared to 19% of men), while men paid more attention to the Mars exploration (24% following very closely, compared to 19% of women).

Foreign news is less interesting than national news — even when it happens in outer space. Only 14% of Americans paid very close attention to the other space story in the news, the problems aboard the Russian space station Mir.

As the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee began its first round of hearings on improper foreign campaign contributions, public interest in the topic fell to its lowest point in eight months. Only one in ten Americans followed the hearings very closely; more than one third (35%) paid almost no attention at all. Interest in the hearings was about the same among Republicans (13% following very closely) and Democrats (10%).

In recent years, only the Whitewater and Ruby Ridge hearings have drawn as little public interest as the Thompson hearings. Congressional inquiries into Iran-Contra, the Persian Gulf conflict, and the federal raid in Waco were followed by more people than this summer’s campaign finance hearings.

Other political stories this month raised only slightly more interest. Some 14% of Americans followed the budget debate very closely, for example, also down from previous months. Only 13% paid very close attention to news about the failed attempt to replace Newt Gingrich as House Speaker.

Among recent international events, the reunification of Hong Kong and China drew the most attention, with 14% of Americans following the story very closely and another 34% following fairly closely. But China’s historic reunification with Hong Kong clearly had less impact than news closer to home. Fully twice as many Americans — 79% — knew the name of the ear-biting professional boxer as could name China as the country that had reacquired a former British colony.

  1. Half the sample was asked, "In your opinion, if the federal budget is balanced in five years, do you think this will help you and your family financially, hurt you and your family financially, or not affect you and your family too much?" The other half was asked, "From what you've heard or read about the balanced budget agreement, do you think it will help you and your family financially, hurt you and your family financially, or not affect you and your family too much?"