WILLIAMS: House Republicans stumble out of the gate

The curtain has been up for six weeks on the first act of the GOP in charge of the House. The audience is not applauding. Public opinion of Congress has not improved.

Despite the historic vote that gave Republicans control of Congress in the 2010 midterm elections, a February Pew poll reported “fully 65 percent [of Americans] say Obama and the GOP leaders are not working together on the important issues facing the country.”

And who takes the greater share of the blame for neglecting the big issues? Pew found that “far more of those who say the two sides are not working together blame Republican leaders [31 percent] than the President [19 percent.]”

The first impression of the Republican agenda is that a lot of valuable time and political capital is being wasted on vapid arguments about the size of massive budget cut proposals.

One hint that the show was going downhill fast came with House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) decision to pull back a proposal to cut what is left of the 2011 budget by $32 billion. He explained that passionate newcomers to his caucus said their constituents demanded even bigger cuts.

So the Speaker stopped any forward motion on possible negotiations with the White House to entertain unrealistic Republican proposals for whacking $60 billion to $80 billion from the budget. That fantasy, according to GOP leaders, is on stage to give loyal Republican voters what they want.

The Republican leadership has the same explanation for time-consuming votes to repeal and defund healthcare reform. Those futile acts failed to attract support from conservative House Democrats who actually share many of the GOP’s concerns about the plan. Similarly, the Republican effort to frame health reform as a corrupt, job killer has gained no traction in the Senate and faces a certain veto if it ever reaches President Obama.

Like so much of the GOP’s act, the lengthy attack on healthcare reform holds only symbolic value. So, could it be that conservative voters, not the politicians, are to blame for this bad show? Looking back at exit polls, the voters who boosted Republicans said their number one concern was the unemployment rate, the economic recovery and rising deficits.

But there has been no action on those issues.

Maybe Republicans are putting on a show for seniors. Exit polls showed 59 percent of voters over 65 voted for Republicans and only 38 percent for Democrats. The 21-point gap has never been larger. As recently as the 2002 and 2006 midterms there was no difference in seniors supporting Republicans and Democrats.

And the reason for the surge of senior votes for Republicans had to do with opposition to Obama’s healthcare reform. Seniors specifically opposed possible cuts to Medicare.

“This is the first time in modern history that older people had their vote influenced by what is going on with old age benefits,” said Robert Binstock, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University in Boehner’s home state of Ohio.

Those voters felt threatened, Binstock said, by proposals to pay for healthcare reform by limiting Medicare. Republican rhetoric about “death panels” and “rationed care” successfully played to seniors’ concerns during the midterm campaign.

But today Binstock points to a CBS poll, released last week, that shows 55 percent of Americans disapprove of Republican efforts to pull funding away from healthcare reform. He sees “a shift in opinion among seniors who are starting to see the benefits of the law – closing the ‘donut hole’ and lower prices for prescription drugs.”

In addition, a January Associated Press poll found 43 percent want the legislation expanded – they don’t think it is strong enough. A January Kaiser Family Foundation’s poll has 43 percent calling for repeal but 47 percent in support of keeping the law in place or expanding it.

The polls indicate Republicans may have lost touch with evolving, uncertain attitudes on healthcare reform among seniors. But where Binstock, the political scientist, thinks the Republican brain trust is way off base is for blaming seniors for their decision to use so much time on extreme cuts to the federal budget.

“There is no evidence seniors are more likely than other age groups to favor their budget proposals” calling for massive cuts in domestic spending, said Binstock. His views are supported by another February Pew poll that found overall there is “not a great deal of support for cutting spending” among voters.

Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had better revise their script if they wish to preserve their majority in 2012.

At some point, the Republican leadership is going to have to stop blaming voters for a bad show and look in the mirror.

Juan Williams is an author and analyst with Fox News