Home | Opinion | Columnists | Mark Mellman

Republicans at odds with the public

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) recently opined that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would be unable to keep his job if he compromised with the president and the Democrats on sequestration. The senator knows a great deal more about internal GOP dynamics than I do, but his assessment carries with it a considerable irony — according to Johnson, Boehner only remains Speaker by continuing to make his party increasingly unpopular, ignoring the wishes even of grassroots Republicans.

By way of background, it is important to understand just how unpopular the GOP is at the moment. In the latest Bloomberg poll, 16 percent more Americans express a favorable view of President Obama than offer an unfavorable opinion. The Democratic Party brand is, not surprisingly, less popular, but still, it is 4 points more favorable than unfavorable. Where is the GOP? Net unfavorable by 20 points! Just 35 percent hold a favorable view of the Republican Party, while 55 percent identified as unfavorable. And the GOP is 6 points worse off today than it was six months ago. Those numbers warrant soul searching among every thinking Republican.

ADVERTISEMENT
This is hardly the only evidence of the GOP’s disastrous position with the American public. The latest Pew/USA Today poll found just 25 percent approving of the way Republican leaders in Congress were handling their jobs — 12 points worse than the ratings for Democratic leaders in the same institution. Polls by Quinnipiac and CBS/The New York Times pegged approval of the “Republicans in Congress” at just 19 percent, meaningfully lower than the percentage identifying as Republicans, suggesting that congressional Republicans are alienating their own base.
As the Bloomberg poll indicates, voters are more likely to hold Republicans responsible for what’s gone wrong in Washington than they are to lay blame at the feet of the president and Congressional Democrats. The Pew/USA Today poll finds Republicans will take the blame for sequester cuts by an 18-point margin.

The Republicans’ problem with the sequester goes back to two fundamental principles: voters don’t want the cuts, and they reject the GOP “cuts only” formula.

Pew examined public views on 19 areas of government spending. In 18 of the 19 cases, majorities of Americans rejected cuts. Only “aid to the world’s needy” proved an exception, but even in that category a plurality opposed cuts. Not surprisingly, Republicans were more willing to cut than Democrats, but pluralities or majorities of Republicans opposed cutting funds for healthcare, environmental protection, scientific research, energy, the State Department, food and drug inspection, education, infrastructure, veterans and in seven other areas — nearly all of which are on the chopping block if the sequester happens.

Not only do Republicans oppose the cuts their congressional leaders seem so anxious to embrace — GOP members are also wildly out of sync with their own grassroots on basic strategy. Congressional Republicans shout “no revenues” from the rooftops, refusing to consider closing loopholes for corporate jets and companies moving overseas. But Americans overall — and Republicans themselves — favor a balanced approach. Just 19 percent of Americans endorse the Republicans’ “spending cuts only” approach, with the rest favoring some combination of cuts and revenues. Only a minority of Republicans back their party’s approach.

Just why Republican members of Congress are so far out of touch with their own party base is a question well worth exploring, but not an issue we have space for here.

Which brings us back to congressional Republicans’ apparent thirst for political suicide: Ron Johnson could well be right — Boehner might lose his post if he does what the overwhelming majority of Americans, and even most of his own partisans, want him to do. But he would do less damage to his party and to his country in the process. And that’s a test of leadership.

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.