BROOKE: At the beginning of this month, Republicans took the reins of Congress, prompting an outpouring of conventional wisdom from the pundits that the Grand Old Party, after leading a House that broke records for doing nothing, now actually has to legislate to win in 2016.
Clip: First of all, Republicans have an opportunity and they have to prove that they can govern.
Clip: I think the real onus is on Republicans to prove to the American people that they can govern.
Clip: It behooves Republicans to pass things, to pass legislation and show the Americans that they can actually govern.
BROOKE: It sounds right -- that Republicans in Congress have to prove their governing abilities to win in 2016. But Talking Point Memo’s Sahil Kapur found that there’s a wealth of data to suggest that’s not actually not the case...
KAPUR: American voters will blame the president when things are going badly, and will credit the president when things are going well. So the perverse thing here is that 2 years of gridlock in Congress could actually help the Republicans by damaging the President's approval rating and by preventing the economy from improving further.
BROOKE: That's quite an assertion, though, that American voters will always blame the president. Where's your data?
KAPUR: There's plenty of it, going back decades. The most recent one I've seen was a survey taken after the midterm election. There's a Quinnipiac poll, and it asked American voters, “If there is gridlock for the next 2 years and big things don't happen, who would you blame the Republicans who run it, or the President?” And by 44-42% margin they said they blame the president. There's also a 1999 study by a political science named Helmut Norpoth that had a similar finding that voters hold the president's party accountable for outcomes, especially economic outcomes.
BROOKE: I've even read a study that has found that for at least the last hundred years, presidents have been held responsible at the polls, it seems, for floods and droughts.
KAPUR: Right. Even things that the president doesn't control at all. For instance the Ebola scare that we had a few months ago. It impacted the president's poll numbers, even though it's very very difficult to argue that he had anything to do with it. So that kind of perfectly illustrates the point.
BROOKE: Did the president get credit for dropping oil prices, even though he had nothing to do with that either?
KAPUR: Absolutely. Look, right now we're seeing President Obama’s approval rating go up a little bit, and people can attribute it to all sorts of things. I personally think it's because the economy is improving, and that includes oil prices falling. And other things like the Ebola scare and the flood of unaccompanied children at the border, these things have subsided a little bit. So there's less of a sense that the country's adrift than there was a few months ago when the President's approval rating was in free fall.
BROOKE: But getting back to the main point, what about the tough senate races for Republicans in 2016? There are six incumbents that face reelection in states that Obama won twice. Don't the Republicans there need to work with Democrats at least on some issues? And won't that ensure slightly less gridlock in the Congress?
KAPUR: Well, yes and no. So that is a really interesting wrinkle, Brooke. Firstly, Republicans have a very tough Senate map in 2016. I believe the numbers are 24 Republicans are up for reelection and only 10 Democrats are up for reelection. And 6 of those Republicans, as you said, are in states that President Obama won twice. Another one of them is in a state that President Obama won once in 2008. So what these Republicans will have to do is create some distance from their party, and show that they're not dyed in the wool Ted Cruz, Rand Paul partisans. That they're going to step across the aisle. But that doesn't necessarily mean that things are going to done. There are many ways that this could play out. It's possible that these Senate Republicans side with Democrats on certain issues like perhaps the minimum wage, or equal pay legislation or something that would send a signal to swing voters, moderate voters, that they're not extremely conservative, but at the same time, even if the Senate passes those bills, the House can kill them. So that doesn't necessarily amount to governing, that could be a strategic decision by these senators and perhaps even the Senate Republican leadership to let these senators off the hook, work with Democrats on certain things, knowing that it won't actually get signed into law or even past the House anyway.
BROOKE: Okay, so the data shows that if nothing happens in Congress, the President will still be blamed and that'll be good for the Republicans in 2016. Nevertheless the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Washington Post just before Christmas that the party needed to be not scary. Quote, "I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible right of center governing majority." So even if it benefits the Republicans to continue the gridlock this year, if the Senate Majority Leader nevertheless believes the conventional wisdom that it will hurt them, doesn't that mean he'll try and get stuff done?
KAPUR: I would question that premise a little bit, Brooke. I'm not necessarily sure he believes this, because Mitch McConnell, I believe, understands the game better than anyone else. He understands how politics is played and he understands how to shape events to his desired outcome. What he's been doing is he's been striking all the right notes. He's been saying we want to be cooperative, he's been saying we want to be a productive governing partner and all that stuff. This is what everyone says when they get elected. It remains to be seen how much of this will actually happen.
BROOKE: This is the same Mitch McConnell who said that he wanted to ensure that Obama would be a one term president.
KAPUR: Exactly. He pioneered some very innovative ways of grinding the Senate to a halt. Record filibusters and party discipline. Mitch McConnell understands the value of obstruction when there's a president of the opposite party. So it remains to be seen how he'll handle it. He has a bit of a tougher needle to thread, as we discussed, partly because of his members who are up for reelection, and also partly because when you're running the place you have to make people believe that you're at least trying.
BROOKE: [Laughs] I just wonder who is determining conventional wisdom now? Rush Limbaugh says it used to be David Gergen, the bipartisan political veteran who is on every talk show.
Limbaugh Clip: Whatever David Rodham Gergen said, you could count on that being the conventional wisdom. That torch is being passed. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin are quickly becoming the new arbiters of conventional wisdom in Washington.
BROOKE: John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, who are hosts of the Bloomberg News politics show, With All Due Respect. In this cacophonous media environment, do we really have a conventional wisdom anymore?
KAPUR: So you know I take your point, Brooke, about there's no one person or no two or three people necessarily who set the conventional wisdom. But sometimes a certain idea or certain narrative takes hold, and a lot of people believe it. And in this case, the idea about Republicans and their having to govern in Congress, that seems to be very, very widely accepted.
BROOKE: What do you think the impact is of constantly repeating something as conventional wisdom that may not reflect reality?
KAPUR: I think our analysis matters less than we believe. When lawmakers and politicians make decisions, it's based on certain assumptions about voters not necessarily paying attention to the conventional wisdom. And they don't, because they have no reason to. They have better things to do than follow every twist and turn and every political debate.
BROOKE: So the punditocracy may be telling the American voter that Republicans in Congress need to be more willing to compromise to position themselves favorably for the presidency in 2016, but the politicians themselves know better.
KAPUR: That's right.
BROOKE: Okay. Sahil, thank you very much.
KAPUR: Happy to be on, Brooke.
BROOKE: Sahil Kapur is Talking Point Memo’s Senior Congressional Reporter and a Supreme Court correspondent.