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Republicans fall over the cliff

Just how much did the fiscal-cliff debate hurt the GOP? A lot. Politically attuned Republicans ought to consider the damage already wrought as they plan strategy for the next round, instead of getting giddy about a government default.

While the fiscal cliff did not command as much attention as some other issues, voters were engaged at a significant level. At the high point, 40 percent of Americans told Pew pollsters they were following the issue closely. Tragedies like the massacres in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., were closely followed by more — 57 percent and 48 percent, respectively. Hurricane Sandy transfixed 53 percent, while Election 2012 was followed closely by 60 percent at its high. All in all, the fiscal cliff was the ninth-most-closely followed story in 2012 and early 2013.

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The results of the ultimate accord were not particularly popular, with voters divided. Pew found 38 percent approving of the agreement, while 41 percent disapproved. Gallup gave a similar 2-point advantage to opponents over supporters of the final agreement.

Republicans, no doubt, thought that the public ambivalence about the plan created space for them to oppose it. It didn’t, and the GOP ended up with a big black eye. According to Pew, voters disapproved of the way Republican leaders handled the issue by a vast 66 percent-to-19 percent margin. Gallup pegged disapproval of the Republicans’ efforts at 67 percent. That means even some GOPers failed to rally to their party’s defense.

The GOP’s own polling confirms the failure of the Republican strategy. My distinguished Republican colleague, David Winston, found the image of Republicans in Congress sinking to its lowest level in at least a year, as 61 percent offered unfavorable evaluations of the congressional party overall, compared to only 30 percent who hold favorable views. Moreover, what voters had heard recently about the GOP (mainly material related to the fiscal cliff) made them feel less favorable by 57 percent to 32, again the worst in over a year. The generic vote followed suit, with voters giving Democrats their biggest margin in the last year and a half.

Why such overwhelmingly negative views of Republicans? By some 3 to 1, voters wanted members of Congress to compromise. Making that a dirty word set the GOP up in direct opposition to the vast majority of Americans. In addition, Winston’s poll reveals a plurality saying the Republicans were sticking to their guns not for reasons of principle, but rather owing to political motives.

Of course, Republicans keep lambasting the president and the Democrats for lack of leadership, failing to offer up proposals and myriad other sins. They aren’t winning that battle either. Americans approved of Obama’s handling of the negotiations by 8 points. HuffPost Pollster’s modeled average job approval rating has been growing through December and January.

Institutions are almost always less popular than individuals, so congressional Democrats fare less well than the president, but are far better liked than their GOP counterparts. Disapproval of Republicans in Congress was 12 points higher than disapproval of congressional Democrats.
In short, the Republican strategy surrounding the fiscal-cliff negotiations was an unmitigated political failure. Yet, somehow, some Republicans are convinced that they should hold the country hostage again as we reach the next cliff in February. A few of them reach back to Newt Gingrich’s government shutdown, forgetting the tremendous damage that event did to the GOP, ending Republican hopes of defeating Bill Clinton before the 1996 campaign began.

Producing a disaster for the country will produce another disaster for the GOP, but even the political hack in me can’t manage a smile at the prospect.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.